The Evolution of American-Style Child Beauty Pageants

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post on May 10, 2011.

The Australian press and public have reacted strongly to plans to hold an "American-style" child beauty pageant in Australia this summer. Since I wrote a summary and a response to the "Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants" situation, the media attention has increased. Last weekend numerous articles appeared about this issue in Australia's newspapers. Now some in Ireland have raised concerns about having an "American-style" Miss Princess Ireland pageant. [Note added: This pageant in Ireland recently took place without a hitch, and reportedly more pageants are being organized for the near future.]

What are the historical roots of these "American-style" child beauty pageants? Having studied these events for over a decade, first as an undergraduate and now as a professional sociologist, I can offer some insights. Somewhat ironically, the first event that would evolve into an "American style" child beauty pageant actually started in a Commonwealth country.

A British art critic and historian named John Ruskin got the idea to hold a springtime festival for young girls, honoring their girlish innocence (Ruskin was actually rumored to be a pedophile...). Ruskin called his events May Queen festivals, since one girl would be selected queen, the "likeablest and loveablest" of all the maidens. The first of these festivals was held in England in 1881 and they quickly spread to North America, where they found a strong reception in the United States.

These competitive festivals soon developed into more systematic baby competitions -- baby parades and better baby contests -- which rewarded children for their looks and their costumes. The historic Asbury Park baby parade was arguably the most famous of the baby parades and contests that started at the turn of the twentieth century. It was the first baby parade ever held on the East Coast and in its heyday, in 1893, it drew 30,000 spectators. It was so popular that Thomas Edison made one of his first movies of the event, on September 12, 1904.

The fame of the Asbury Park Baby Parade set off a string of imitators in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, Long Island, and, of course, Coney Island. Coney Island started its famous baby parade in 1906. The Coney Island baby parade had 1200 participants in its first year, 600 of whom competed for the title of "most beautiful baby."

Coney Island's parade continued to thrive into the 1920s. The 1923 and 1928 events boasted around 400 entrants who won in a variety of get-ups. A three-year-old girl won in a harem costume, a two-year-old won as a "Vanity Girl," and a six-year-old won dressed like a "Show Girl." Clearly, children dressing up like sexual adults started long before the twenty-first century. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, these little nymphs, audiences turned out in large numbers. The New York Times reported that the 1929 Coney Island Baby Parade had 500,000 spectators.

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