Atlantic City, 1933

(Click on any picture for a larger view)

Atlantic City Beach
In the early 1900's, Atlantic City was a fashionable summer retreat for the affluent residents of nearby cities. The wives and daughters of the social elite would escape the heat (no air conditioning in those days!) by retreating to summer homes on the beaches in the southern suburbs -- elegant Victorian mansions and beach cottages. Thus, you can imagine the excitement of the contestants, most of whom had never been outside their own home state -- this would be as exotic in 1933 as a trip to the French Riviera in 2000!

The World's largest auditorium, built in 1929
Atlantic City introduced a number of elements to American seaside amusements before beauty pageants, including the Boardwalk (1870), the amusement pier (1882), the rolling chair (1884), and the American picture postcard (imported from Germany) (1895). Even in the first decades of the 20th century, it also featured fine hotels. The present Boardwalk is concrete. All of the storied amusement piers have been destroyed; the Steel Pier has been modified beyond recognition. The leading hotels from early in the century have been demolished. Only one major edifice remains that recalls the city's heyday as a seaside resort: the Atlantic City Convention Hall. This structure was the scene of one of America's greatest pageants, the Miss America Contest, from the time of the Hall's erection in 1933 through 2005 after which year the Pageant moved to Las Vegas.

Convention Hall. The Atlantic City Convention Hall opened in 1929, on the 75th anniversary of the founding, by the directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad, of the city, which began as a speculative resort on Absecon Island. The role of the building in local history is clear from its position on the Boardwalk, the seaside boulevard that set Atlantic City apart from other American cities, and near the railroad stations, built by the capitalists who established the community.

The inside of the Auditorium
The Atlantic City Convention Hall is the largest structure on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Its construction in 1926 marked the coming of age of "The World's Play Ground," as the nation's most popular resort dubbed itself; it culminated a half century of development that created the Boardwalk, lined with great hotels. The city became the center of many of America's most popular folk events, beginning with the Easter Parade, and crowned in the 1920s with the public relations coup of the Miss America Pageant. More than half a century after its completion by architects Lockwood and Greene, the Hall continues to serve its original use as a convention center. It is also of interest for its size and engineering. In 1929, it was the world's largest convention facility, and its ballroom was larger than New York's famed Radio City Music Hall. It was the largest building in the world without roof posts and pillars.

World's largest organ
As engineering, the Atlantic City Convention Hall occupies a significant place in the history of large-span structures. Indeed, when it was built, it contained the largest room with an unobstructed view in the history of architecture. That feat was accomplished by the use of an architectural form developed for railroad train sheds, the three-hinged arched truss. The form had already been used for a similar exhibition purpose, in the Hall of Machinery of the Paris Exhibition of 1888, but it had not been used in a public auditorium. The engineering triumph of building so vast a hall on the seashore site resulted, on its 50th anniversary, in its being the recipient of the Civil Engineering Landmark designation of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Atlantic City Convention Hall is also highly regarded by connoisseurs of American pipe organs, for it features what is, arguably, the largest organ in the world, with 33,000 pipes, arranged in chambers built into the walls of the Great Hall. Built in 1933, the organ is still the largest in the world. The organ's first performance was at the 1933 Miss America Pageant.

In 1987 the Convention Hall was listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Steel Pier
Steel Pier. In its heyday, The Steel Pier entertained tens of thousands of visitors each day with attendance reaching 80,000 the Sunday before Labor Day. With non-stop entertainment including the top names of the day and novelty acts like the Diving Horse and the high-wire motorcycle act and four theaters that could accommodate 12,000 patrons at a time, The Steel Pier was indeed, The Nation's Showplace. It was built in 1898, 16 years after Atlantic City's "Ocean Pier" -- the world's first oceanside amusement pier.

The Steel Pier originally opened in 1898 and quickly became known for showcasing the world's top entertainers. From the 1920's through the 50s everyone who was anyone played Steel Pier. W. C. Fields was a member of the minstrel group that appeared during the Pier's inaugural season, but headline appearances quickly followed for him and everyone else. Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, Amos 'n Andy, Frank Sinatra - everyone played Steel Pier. It's been said that Big Bands weren't really big until they started to play on Steel Pier. For one admission price, patrons could enjoy every concert, film and attraction without ever spending another cent.

The Auditorium at night with special lightshow - but in 1935-1938 the coronation was on the Steel Pier instead
Atlantic City's venerable Miss America Pageant has close ties to Steel Pier. Frank Gravatt, one of the pier's early owners who hired George Hamid, saved the event from financial ruin by hosting the pageant in the pier's main ballroom, where Miss America was crowned in 1935-1938. The pageant later moved back to its home in Convention Hall, where the coronation had been in 1933.

As air travel became accessible to more vacationers and Atlantic City slipped into its long, slow decline, the glory of Steel Pier eventually faded away until it closed in 1976. But, in nearly eight decades entertaining millions of people, it gained a well deserved place in the hearts of visitors worldwide. In 1982 it suffered a devastating fire, but was resurrected in 1993, by Donald Trump and is now an amusement pier. Many of Atlantic City's famed piers were destroyed in the Hurricane of 1944.

Many firsts. For many contestants, seeing an ocean was not just their only first. All the contestants stayed at the new luxurious hotel, the Ritz-Carlton. For many of them, it would have been their first stay in a hotel. At that time, if families traveled, it was usually to see relatives. There were not many hotels in small towns (even business travelers rented a room from a private home); most hotels were only found in resorts, like Atlantic City.

During the early part of the 20th century, Atlantic City went through a radical building boom. Many of the modest boarding houses that dotted the boardwalk were replaced with large hotels. Two of the city's most distinctive hotels were the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel and the Traymore Hotel. One by one, additional large hotels were constructed along the boardwalk, including the Brighton, Chelsea, Shelburne, Ambassador, Ritz Carlton, Mayflower, Madison House, and the Breakers.

Hackney's - the world's largest seafood restaurant!
Seafood. For probably most of the Mid-West contestants, this was also their first taste of lobster. At that time, Hackney's was the world's largest seafood restaurant. The main dining room could seat 3,200 patrons! That was as large as some small towns! On the third day of the Pageant, the girls lunched upon lobsters brought in by airplane from Gloucester, Massachusetts. And, 75 years later, Gloucester is still renowned for their lobsters!

Movie theatre - Ghost Train. Conversely, movie theatres were ubiquitous -- in all major cities and many small towns as well; as of 1920 there were 20,000 movie houses in America. The commonality of movies is perhaps underscored by the fact that Miss Wisconsin remembered clearly dining on lobster at Hackney's but did not remember going to the movies, or seeing Ghost Train.

1911 Boardwalk
The Boardwalk. Atlantic City's Boardwalk was yet another "world first," and perhaps its greatest claim to fame. Built in 1870 along a portion of the beach, it was designed to help hotel owners keep sand out of their lobbies. The idea caught on, and the boardwalk was expanded and modified several times in the following years. The historic length of the boardwalk, before the 1944 hurricane, was about 7 miles (11 km) and it extended from Atlantic City to Longport, through Ventnor and Margate. Today, it is 4.12 miles (6.63 km) long and 60 feet (18 m) wide, reinforced with steel and concrete. The combined length of the Atlantic City and Ventnor boardwalks -- the boardwalk now ends at the Ventnor/Margate border -- is approximately 5.75 miles (9.25 km), currently the world's longest boardwalk.

1925 Rolling Chair parade at the Miss America Pageant
Rolling Chairs. For 125 years, Atlantic City has also feen famous for its rolling chairs. When the first Boardwalk was laid out in 1870, vehicles of any kind were prohibited. The construction of the third Boardwalk in 1884 was more accessible to vehicles, and wheelchairs were allowed for the use of handicapped persons. Some individuals pretended to need the chairs. City authorities made no objection to this, and the practice grew.

eight of the 1933 contestants on the boardwalk
Rolling chairs are still rolling on the boardwalk, and touted as "a relaxing and romantic ride in a historic chair." The wicker, canopied chairs-on-wheels are manually pushed the length of the Boardwalk by friendly attendants, much like a carriage ride. In 2010, a Rolling Chair ride offers easy access to 11 of the 14 casino properties. Visitors have used the rolling chair for a relaxing ride, a scenic tour, or on occasion, for special events. All one has to do is step onto the boardwalk and flag one down; attendants are eager to give rides. They were an important part of all the beauty parades too, as the 1925 picture at left attests! In 1933 the contestants were wheeled in them along the boardwalk (Miss West Virginia with her pet fox), as well as in the Convention Hall.