Contests to determine “the fairest of them all” have been around since ancient Greece. While the topic of women’s beauty has long been discussed, the first modern American beauty pageant was staged by P. T. Barnum in 1854. Though he had previously held dog, baby, and bird judging contests, it seems that Americans of that era were not quite ready to judge women in the same way. It is unclear whether the contest was ended by public protest or if Barnum simply was unable to lure respectable young ladies of the Victorian era to publicly display themselves, but live beauty pageants would have to wait for another day. However, Barnum developed a brilliant alternate plan wherein he accepted entries in the form of daguerreotypes (photographic likenesses) which were displayed in his museum where the public was invited to vote for their favorites.
In the decades to follow, the photo contest format was widely imitated and became a respectable way for girls and women to have their beauty judged. Civic leaders across the country held newspaper contests to choose women that represented the spirit of their communities. One of the most popular of these occurred in 1905, when promoters of the St. Louis World’s Fair asked newspapers across the country to select a representative young woman from their city to compete for a beauty title at the fair. There was intense competition and many thousands of photographic entrants.
By the early decades of the twentieth century, attitudes had begun to change about beauty pageants. Prohibitions against the display of women in public began to fade, though not disappear altogether. When one of the earliest known resort beauty pageants was held in 1880 at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, it was dismissed as the activity of a “working class” beach resort. Beauty pageants only became widespread after the turn of the century. One of the issues which had to be overcome was that Victorian dress codes did not allow for the development of close-fitting, one-piece bathing attire for women before the early twentieth century. In the early 1900’s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. In 1907, at the height of her popularity, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested for indecency on Revere Beach, Massachusetts, while wearing one of her fitted one-piece costumes. However, the popularity of her suits won the day and resulted in her own line of women’s swimwear.
Public opinion, clothing and timing all came together in 1921, when a beauty pageant, which would become the first Miss America contest, was staged in Atlantic City. Local businessmen, looking for an event to entice tourists to stay past Labor Day, happened upon the idea of a bathing beauty pageant. Nine girls competed – three from New Jersey and six from surrounding states. A carnival atmosphere surrounded the event. There were fireworks and a decorated float was towed in from the ocean carrying “King Neptune” (portayed by Hopatcong’s own Hudson Maxim) who would crown the winner. So as not to offend public morals, the contest was just one event in a week-long, elaborate festival that included sports events, automobile races, orchestra and choir competitions. Stressing that the contestants were both youthful and wholesome, the Miss America Pageant developed a concept that would be followed in future years.
Following the success of the Atlantic City pageant, beauty pageants became popular summer events across the country during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Lake Hopatcong was no exception, holding its first beauty pageant in 1924. Charles Engelbrecht, a photographer with a studio at Nolan’s Point, was familiar with Atlantic City’s pageant and thought a similar event could be successful at the lake. He combined a beauty pageant with a baby parade, swimming and diving contests. The crowd was so big that the bathing beauty pageant had to be moved into Allen’s Pavilion (located where the Windlass sits today). In 1925, Engelbrecht repeated the event and added boat races. In 1926, the Lake Hopatcong Association was founded “for the betterment of the lake.” Engelbrecht, one of the group’s founders, helped plan a fundraiser. The “Monster Carnival,” as it was billed, featured a wide array of events including a two-part beauty pageant – a bathing beauty contest at Lee’s Park and an evening gown competition at Bertrand Island Park. The Association planned another carnival in 1927 with the beauty pageant moving entirely to Bertrand Island.
From 1927 until World War II, beauty pageants were a mainstay at Bertrand Island Park and became one of its most successful promotions. Girls representing various parts of the lake as well as some hotels would compete for local championships – Miss Northwood, Miss Castle Edward, etc. Bertrand Island Park conducted one of these local events. Miss Bertrand Island would then compete against winners of the other local pageants for a chance to become Miss Lake Hopatcong in a competition held at Bertrand Island Park.
The biggest beauty pageant held at Lake Hopatcong took place in 1934. Though the Miss America pageant had originated in Atlantic City, there were several years during the late 1920’s and early 30’s when the contest was not held by the Atlantic City organization due to financial problems and scandals concerning the eligibility of contestants. This left the door open for other cities to hold the contest. On August 28th and 29th, 1934, thirty-six girls from all over the United States descended on Bertrand Island for a contest billed as Miss America 1934. The contest drew huge crowds and was widely covered by the newspapers and newsreels. Although this contest is not recognized today as an officially sanctioned event by the Miss America Organization, it was a great public relations success for Bertrand Island. In 1935, Atlantic City restarted its Miss America Pageant and has held the contest every year since.
During the early years of the Miss America Pageant, organizations throughout the country were sanctioned to hold contests and send their winners directly to Atlantic City. Bertrand Island Park was one such site. The Miss Lake Hopatcong winner went directly to compete in the Miss America Pageant, with her travel costs paid by the park. For purposes of publicity she would compete as Miss Bertrand Island. Following a third place finish in 1936, 17-year-old Bette Cooper of Hackettstown won the Miss Bertrand Island Pageant in July 1937. In August, she was named Miss Lake Hopatcong and was sent to the competition in Atlantic City. On September 11, Bette was named Miss America 1937.
Unprepared for the publicity appearances and demanding schedule which the Miss America Organization expected of the winner, Bette disappeared for some 24 hours and the news services had a field day reporting that she had run off with her chaperone. Newspapers ran photos showing the empty throne. When the dust settled, Bette and her family demanded and received a less rigorous schedule, which led to permanent changes in the Miss America pageant rules.
Pageants remained popular at Bertrand Island when it was selected to host the 1939, 1940 and 1941 Miss New Jersey pageants, with the winner being the state’s sole representative in the Miss America pageant. During these years, Bertrand Island held two contests each year with the winner of the Miss Bertrand Island contest competing for the title of Miss New Jersey. The advent of World War II ended Bertrand Island’s close association with beauty pageants. However, pageants made a comeback at Lake Hopatcong in the 1950’s and 1960’s, although they were no longer held at Bertrand Island Park. Janet Adams, from Stone Avenue in Hopatcong, won Miss Lake Hopatcong 1962, went on to become Miss New Jersey, and competed in the 1963 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. We are aware of at least three more museum members who won the title of Miss Lake Hopatcong during this period. As the lake turned into a year-round community, beauty pageants disappeared from the lake scene. In recent years, there have been attempts to revive competitions in some of the towns around the lake, with mixed results. While the era of beauty pageants at Lake Hopatcong has faded, they will always be indelibly tied to the lake’s past prominence as a summer resort.
Bathing Pageant at Nolan's Point 1924.
Bertrand Island Park's Flyer for its 1927 Bathing Beauty Contest
Girls from various parts and hotels on the lake competing at the Miss Lake Hopatcong Beauty Contest, in the June Rose Ballroom at Bertrand Island Park, circa 1930.
Miss America 1934 Pageant at Bertrand Island Park
Myrtle Richardson, after being crowned "Miss America" at Bertrand Island Park in August 1934
Miss Bertrand Island, Bette Cooper, competing at the Miss America Pageant in 1937
Bette Cooper, of Hackettstown, who participated as Miss Bertrand Island after being crowned Miss America 1937 in Atlantic City
Miss New Jersey 1963 was Janet Adams of Stone Avenue in Hopatcong