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Miss Subways: The Tube Beauty Contest

For thirty five years, between 1941 and 1976, a company called New York Subways Advertising ran a city-wide beauty contest. Any New Yorker and female, and between the ages of 14 to 30 could enter it, but to see the contestants and the winners, one had to go underground and ride the transit.

The Miss Subways was not a typical pageant. Each month, women across New York City mailed in their photos and biographies to John Robert Powers’ modeling agency, and the lucky winners had their photos printed in black and white and plastered all over the subway. The photos were accompanied by a blurb detailing their interests and career aspiration.

Miss Subways

Former Miss Subways gather for a reunion.

Millions of people saw these pretty faces as they rode the subway every day. The photos remained for a month until the next winners replaced them. Eventually, they remained for two months—long enough for many to achieve starletdom. The winners were discussed by gossip columnists, photographed for magazines, and received attention from the public. Admirers sent them flowers and pies, and there was a torrent of marriage proposals.

The informal pageant even helped jumpstart the careers of some in Tinseltown, but for most part, Miss Subways was about the average working girl. Many Miss Subways were secretaries, service women, nurses, sales girls, and receptionists, and they continued to hold onto their roles long after their month-long fame was over.

The Miss Subways contest was originally conceived to draw riders’ attention to the ads that were conspicuously placed alongside the women’s photos. Before long it had evolved into a beauty pageant in its own right. The NPR called it “the nation's first integrated beauty contest” with contestants drawn in from all working-class and color. There were Irish, Italian, Jewish, Catholic, Latina, Hispanic, Black, and Asian. Decades before there was a black Miss America, there were many black Miss Subways.

Miss Subways

Each month between 300 to 400 women entered the contest. Some women sent in their own photos, others were sent in by friends and family. Sometimes scouts from Powers’ modeling agency hand-picked finalists from restaurants, dinner clubs and other public places. Mr. Powers once selected a Miss Subways who was his manicurist at the Waldorf-Astoria.

In 1963, Powers removed himself from the selection process and the contest was changed to public vote by post card and later by telephone. In their own words, the contest was redirected “to reflect the girl who works – what New York City is all about.”

However, the initial curation from the hundreds of submissions was still done by the agency. Usually, about 30 were selected for a personal interview to judge personality and make certain that the submitted picture is a good likeness. From these about six were nominated for public voting. They were professionally photographed, and their faces then pasted inside subway cars and other places where riders could see them.

Miss Subways

Incredibly, Miss Subways never missed an edition during the long five years of Word War 2, but there was a marked change in the copies that described the women reflecting the role they played in the war effort. After the war, the copy reflected a shift back toward homemaking roles and traditional expectations.

In the 1970s, the New York City experiences a financial crises and the subways fell into disrepair. At the same time, the women’s liberation movement was gaining steam that increased women’s reluctance to participate. In 1976, Miss Subways came to an end.

Today, you can still find a large number of these original posters framed and hanging at Ellen's Stardust Diner in Theater District, Manhattan, New York City. Famed for its singing waitstaff, the diner contains many retro-themed memorabilia such as an indoor train, and a “drive-in theater” screen that showcases performances of the 1950s. Incidentally, the diner’s owner, Ellen Hart Sturm, was Miss Subways of March 1959.

Miss Subways

Miss Subways

Miss Subways

Miss Subways

References:
# Melanie Bush, Miss Subways, Subversive and Sublime, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/24/nyregion/thecity/miss-subways-subversive-and-sublime.html
# Susie Orman Schnall, The Subway Girls of Decades Past, https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a13787066/miss-subway-girls-book/
# 'Miss Subways': A Trip Back In Time To New York's Melting Pot, https://www.npr.org/sections/pictureshow/2012/12/20/167659444/miss-subways-a-trip-back-in-time-to-new-yorks-melting-pot
# Carly Stern, Before there was Miss Universe… there was Miss Subways, https://www.ozy.com/true-and-stories/before-there-was-miss-universe-there-was-miss-subways/91229/

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