The vibrant colors and Art Deco design of this Holdfast Hair Pin card didn’t catch my eye until I saw it listed in an online auction. The woman’s bobbed hair is typical of the flapper era, and it was easy for me to envision her in a short dress and rolled stockings, stopping by her local five-and-dime to pick up a card of Holdfast hair pins to keep her newly shorn locks in place.
I can’t conceive of life without bobby pins, and it is my contention that they are the unsung heroines of a woman’s beauty tool kit. I wear my hair short, so I don’t often use them, but I keep a few stashed in my bag anyway. A recent purse search turned up my wallet, cell phone, a handful of loose change, a lipstick I had been searching for since last week, and three bobby pins.
The spare change may come in handy, and I’m glad the lipstick finally turned up, but I tossed the bobby pins right back into my purse because I find the ingenious metal clips are as useful—or even more useful than—any multi-purpose knife. They can be used to create a halo of face framing curls or as an improvised paper clip, bookmark, screwdriver, fishhook, cherry pitter, or lock pick. Unconvinced of the bobby pin’s superiority? Just try holding your hair in place with any of the objects listed above.
Given their usefulness, it is no wonder that at least half a dozen people have sought to take credit for the bobby pin’s invention. First was an imaginative 15th century fellow, the eponymous Robert “Bobby” Pinsworth. According to some sources, Mrs. Pinsworth was having a bad hair day when she asked her husband for something to hold an errant strand in place. Bobby came through with a uniquely designed clip that changed Mrs. P’s life.
In March 1990, Luis Marco, a 1920s San Francisco cosmetics manufacturer was eulogized in a local newspaper as the originator of the bobby pin. His daughter said that he had toyed with the idea of naming it the Marcus Pin, but named it after bobbed hair instead.
The only historical consensus about the humble little clip seems to be that it was created during the Roaring 20s, like the Holdfast Hair Pins, for flappers coping with their newly cropped dos; but whether the clever ribbed metal device was the brainchild of Bobby Pinsworth, Luis Marco, or someone else altogether, its true creator remains a beautiful mystery.
All hail the Queen! The Regina hair net envelope suggests that any wearer of the net inside will become a queen. Well, a hair net is much easier to wear out in public than a jeweled crown is — unless you’re Miss America.
The Miss America Pageant was conceived in Atlantic City. The Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City devised a plan that would keep profits flowing into the city past Labor Day, which was when tourists traditionally left for home.
The kick-off event was held on September 25, 1920, and was called the Fall Frolic. Who could resist an event in which three hundred and fifty men pushed gaily decorated rolling wicker chairs along a parade route? The main attractions were the young maidens who occupied the chairs. The head maiden was Miss Ernestine Cremona who, dressed in a flowing white robe, was meant to represent peace.
The Atlantic businessmen had scored a major success with the Frolic. They immediately realized the powerful appeal of a group of attractive young women dressed in bathing suits, and so a committee was formed to organize a bather’s revue for the next year’s event.
The bather’s revue committee contacted newspapers in cities as far west as Pittsburgh and as far south as Washington, D.C. asking them to sponsor local beauty contests. The winners of the local contests would participate in the Atlantic City beauty contest.
Atlantic City newspaperman Herb Test reported that the winner of the city’s pageant would be called Miss America.
The 1921 Fall Frolic was five days of, well, frolicking. There were tennis tournaments, parades, concerts, a fancy dress ball and SEVEN different bathing divisions! If you were in Atlantic City during those five days and not dressed in a bathing suit you would have been out of place. Children, men, even fire and police personnel, all were in bathing suits. There was a category created specifically for professional women, and by professional the pageant’s organizers didn’t mean corporate women, secretaries or hookers, they meant stage and screen actresses.
The first Miss America was chosen by a combination of the crowd’s applause and points given to her by a panel of artists who served as judges. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman (30-25-32), who bore a strong resemblance to screen star Mary Pickford, was proclaimed the winner. Gorman was crowned, wrapped in an American flag, and presented with the Golden Mermaid trophy and $100.
Atlantic City expanded the frolic during the 1920s and the number of contestants grew to 83 young women from 36 states. The event drew protestors who thought that the girls were immoral — why else would they be willing to parade around in bathing suits in public? The organizers countered the protests by publicizing that the contestants were wholesome, sweet young things who neither wore make-up, nor bobbed their hair.
Louise Brooks, bobbed haired beauty.
With the runaway success of the Atlantic City pageant, other groups saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon by promoting their own ideals of beauty. The 1920s saw pageants for a Miss Bronze America, and even the Ku Klux Klan staged a pageant for Miss 100 Percent America! It’s difficult for me to visualize a woman wearing a bathing suit and one of those dopey conical hats.
For the next several years the Atlantic City pageant continued to thrive and to change. One of the changes was in scoring. How does a panel of judges determine a beauty contest winner? By the mid-1920s a points system was established: five points for the construction of the head, three points for the torso, two points for the leg…I’m wondering just how many points a perky rounded posterior was worth.
In 1926, Norma Smallwood, a small-town girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was crowned Miss America. She parlayed her reign into big bucks. She reportedly made over $100k — more than either Babe Ruth or President Calvin Coolidge!
Smallwood appears to have been the first Miss America who realized that her crown was a business opportunity. When she was asked to return to Atlantic City in 1927 to crown her successor, she demanded to be paid. When the pageant reps didn’t come forward with a check, Norma bid them adieu and headed for a gig in North Carolina.
By 1928 women’s clubs, religious organizations and other conservative Americans went on the attack and accused the organizers of the Miss America Pageant of corrupting the nation’s morals. One protester said, “Before the competition, the contestants were splendid examples of innocence and pure womanhood. Afterward their heads were filled with vicious ideas.”
Still from OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928)
The controversy over the beauty contest scared the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce so badly that, in 1928, they voted twenty-seven to three to cancel the event!
The stock market crash and resulting economic depression made the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce rethink the event, and it was revived 1933.
In 1933, thirty young women were brought to Atlantic City aboard a chartered train called the Beauty Special.
The Atlantic City Press newspaper reported:
“Queens of pulchritude, representing 29 states, the District of Columbia and New York City, will arrive here today to compete for the crown of Miss America 1933.
The American Beauty Special train will arrive at the Pennsylvania-Reading Railroad Station at South Carolina Avenue at 1:20 p.m. to mark the opening of the eighth edition of the revived Atlantic City Pageant. The five-day program will be climaxed Saturday night with the coronation ceremonies in the Auditorium.
A collection of blondes, brunettes and red heads, will assemble in Broad Street Station, Philadelphia, this morning, and the beauty special will leave at 11:55 a.m.”
It is surprising that more women didn’t participate in the 1933 Miss America pageant. In the midst of the Great Depression the contest prizes sounded fabulous, “Wealth and many honors await the Miss America this year. She will receive many valuable prizes and a cash award as well. In addition, she will have opportunities to pursue a theatrical career.”
Some of the contestants may have believed the stories related in rags-to-Broadway-riches films like GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. The opportunity for a girl to win a part in a film or on Broadway would have been a potent lure for those who saw themselves as the next Joan Blondell or Ruby Keeler. I can imagine many of the Miss America hopefuls on the Beauty Train singing WE’RE IN THE MONEY.
The 1933 winner was Marian Bergeron, a talented girl from Westhaven, Connecticut. She was poised for a shot at stardom until the newspapers reported her age; she was only fifteen. Her young age put a damper on an offer from RKO, but she was buoyed by a two year reign – no pageant was held in 1934.
During the 1930s the Miss America pageant continued to be viewed by many as a circus of sin. In October 1935 a scandal rocked the contest.
Less than a month after seventeen-year-old Henrietta Leaver had been crowned Miss America, a nude statue of her was unveiled in her hometown of Pittsburgh.
Henrietta swore up and down that she had worn a bathing suit when she posed for the statue, and she also said that her grandmother had been with her each time she had posed. Nobody bought Henrietta’s story and the image of the Miss America pageant was further tarnished.
One of my favorite Miss America contestants of the 1930s was Rose Veronica Coyle (1936 winner). Rose was twenty-two when she won title of Miss America. Rose wore a short ballet shirt with a white jacket, brightened by huge red polka dots, and sang “I Can’t Escape from You”.
Rose Coyle, Truckin’
She then wowed the judges with her eight-minute long tap dance routine performed to TRUCKIN’. The audience loved her so much the judges allowed her an encore — the first in the pageant’s history.
The Miss America Pageant lost its venue after WWII broke out because it was needed by the military. Rose Coyle and her husband, Leonard Schlessinger (National General Manager of Warner Bros. Theaters) saved the day by relocating the Miss America Pageant to the Warner Theatre on the Boardwalk. It would be the pageant’s home until 1946.
I want to express my thanks to those of you who attended my lecture last Sunday in the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. The lecture was co-hosted by the Los Angeles Art Deco Society, and American Cinematheque, and was followed by a screening (with LIVE musical accompaniment provided by pianist Robert Israel) of the 1927 film “It”, starring Clara Bow.
Here’s a clip from the film:
Clara sure had “It”, and her sassy bob was a major part of her appeal.
What about bobbed hair? Did Clara Bow create it? And if she didn’t, who did? There is evidence which suggests that Antek Cierplikowski (aka Mssr. Antoine) may have bobbed the hair of French actress Eva Lavalliere as early as 1909 — but it was dancer Irene Castle who popularized the style in 1914 when she cut her own hair in advance of elective surgery. Irene may have clipped her locks for convenience, but thousands of women were smitten by both the style and the ease of her adorable cropped ‘do and they immediately followed her lead. Scissors were soon flying in barbershops all over the U.S.
Irene Castle gave the bob its first little nudge into popular culture, but silent film star Colleen Moore brought the bob to mainstream America in the film “Flaming Youth” in 1923. Writer and chronicler of all things flapper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, said: “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.”
Colleen’s hair was styled in a sweet dutch boy crop; but there was plenty of room for different interpretations of the bob from Clara Bow’s carefree tousled hair, to Louise Brooks’ sleek black helmet.
Despite their different on- and off-screen personas, all three women epitomized the flapper in general, and the glorified the bob hairdo in particular. The bob has survived to be 100 years old is because it has readily adapted to the whims of fashion.
Bobbed hair was de riguer for flappers, and of course flappers were glorified in film, literature, poetry — all of the arts. I believe that no single person did more to immortalize the flapper than writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. And he didn’t just talk the talk — he and his wife Zelda led others of the “Lost Generation” on a decade long party.
Years after the flapper had taken her last illegal drink, and attended her final petting party, Fitzgerald’s short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, was brought to television by PBS. The 1976 production starred Shelley Duval (Bernice) and Bud Cort (Warren). In this clip Bernice asks Warren for his opinion on the hair bobbing issue.
Conversations like the one Bernice and Warren were having on the dance floor, were taking place in thousands of American homes during the 1920s. The hair bobbing issue was a hot topic and caused broken engagements, divorce, and even the spanking of a wife by her husband!
From our vantage point it may be difficult to believe that something as simple as a haircut could cause so much controversary — we’re accustomed to choosing our personal style with virtually no constraints (and that may not always been a good thing.)
Nevertheless, whether you have long hair, or short, props must be given to the women of the 1920s who paved the way for all of the rest of us — we owe them a debt.