Long before the phrase “Jersey shore” conjured images of heavily made-up young women engaging in booze-fueled casual sex with “gorilla juice heads”—as Snooki Polizzi sweetly characterized her male ideal—many of New Jersey’s beach communities had a genuine air of glamor about them. No one would mistake the state’s beach towns for St. Tropez or Ipanema; but there was, nevertheless, an excitement about some places “down the shore,” like Atlantic City, that fed on New York’s electric proximity while providing visitors with a feeling of escape as well as wider (and perhaps bawdier) vistas.
For instance, one of the signature draws along the famous boardwalk in “the world’s favorite playground” was the annual Miss America pageant, long held every September in that neon city by the sea. Conceived in 1921 as a way to keep at least some of the summer crowds around and, of course, spending money after Labor Day, the pageant lit up Atlantic City for nine decades before packing up and moving, in 2006, to Vegas. (The contest returned to Atlantic City in 2013.) As the granddaddy—or rather, the grandma—of beauty contests, the pageant seemed to say something at once profound and quite silly about the culture that spawned it.
In fact, the reader will notice that that description might well apply to the pictures in this gallery, as well—photos made by LIFE’s Alfred Eisentaedt during the 1945 competition in Atlantic City. (Only one of the pictures here, the first slide, ever ran in the magazine; the rest remained unpublished.)
Sure, there were speeches and displays of genuine talent on stage. But more often than not, the images that emerged from the two-day (now three-day) affair featured scores of women, most of whom seemed—and who still seem—to be cut from very much the same physical mold, wearing very small bathing suits and posing or parading in high heels.
That the Miss America title for many decades really meant Miss Caucasian America certainly undercut the pageant’s unspoken but strongly implied claim to celebrate—and judge—an entire nation’s loveliest and most talented women. African-American women did not even begin competing in the pageant until the 1970s, and the first African-American Miss America, the wonderful Vanessa Williams, would not be crowned until 1984—a full six decades after the pageant began.
But that sort of problematic history aside, the Miss America pageant remains a signature cultural happening, while the Miss America Organization provides tens of millions of scholarship dollars annually to thousands of young women who, without that money, might not be able to attend college. In fact, it just so happens that the Miss America featured in this gallery, Bess Myerson—incidentally, the first Jewish winner of the pageant—was the very first Miss America to receive a scholarship as part of her victory prize.
So . . . laugh if you will at the bathing suit competition, and the contestants’ occasionally stilted speeches filled with platitudes about world peace. If the folks who run Miss America keep up their mission of helping young women achieve their goals—and if they keep backing up their support with hard cash—chances are pretty good that at least some of the women up there on the stage will be laughing with you, all the way to careers that might otherwise be beyond their reach. And that really is something to celebrate.