In A Nutshell
Between 1941 and 1976, the New York subway system was home to a rather unique beauty pageant. Known as “Miss Subways,” winners were chosen by popular vote, and anyone in New York could cast a ballot. Winners had their photos plastered in subway cars and earned instant celebrity status. Most importantly, since the “Miss Subways” contest was a democracy, the winners were an incredibly diverse bunch.
The Whole Bushel
If you’re a fan of old musicals then you’ve probably seen On the Town, the 1949 rom-com starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. The movie follows three sailors with incredible dancing skills as they roam around Manhattan, searching for the elusive Miss Turnstiles. If you’ve never watched the film, Miss Turnstiles is the winner of a New York beauty pageant, and her photo is posted in every subway in the city.
In reality, there actually were subway beauty queens back in the day, only instead of “Miss Turnstiles,” they were simply known as “Miss Subways.” The contest was created in 1941 by the New York Subways Advertising Company as a way to sell soda and cigarettes. The company wanted commuters to look up at the ads that lined the car walls, and what better way to draw attention than posting photos of pretty girls?
The contest was pretty straightforward. There weren’t any elegant gowns, talent shows, or bathing suits. Hopeful contestants simply submitted their photos, and out of the thousands of entries, about 25 were selected for the competition.
Originally, a new winner was selected monthly by the John Robert Powers modeling agency, but over time, the contest became more democratic (and slightly less frequent). Winners were chosen by people who rode the subways. If you wanted a particular girl to win, you mailed in a postcard. Whoever earned the most votes was photographed by the John Robert Powers agency and earned a place of honor in every New York subway car for a couple of months.
In addition to the photo, there was a short little bio describing the hopes and hobbies of each winner. For example, the first Miss Subways was 14-year-old Mona Freeman, a girl who’d never stepped into a subway until she was crowned. Her poster read, “Vivacious Mona Freeman writes for her school paper. She’s interested in school dramatics. Broadway and Hollywood, please note.” When Enid Berkowitz won in 1946, her poster proclaimed, “Art student at Hunter College — interested in advertising and costume design — makes own clothes — plugging for B.A. but would settle for M.R.S.”
Most of the contestants were either college students or working women. There were teachers, secretaries, medical assistants, and everything in between (especially as time went on). Winners were citywide celebrities, at least for a few months, and received an incredible amount of attention, especially from men. One Miss Subways, Ruth Ericsson, supposedly got over 200 marriage proposals, 182 orchids, and at least one lemon meringue pie.
Obviously, many of the contestants aspired to be actresses or models. A few got to live out their fantasies, like the original Miss Subways, Mona Freeman, who actually played in several Hollywood films. But most went on to hold a variety of careers from appellate-court attorney to banker to real estate agent. And Miss Subways of March-April 1959 went on to open the famous New York cafe, Ellen’s Stardust Diner.
Eventually, the contest came to an end in 1976. After 35 years and around 200 winners, the final Miss Subways was Heide Hafner, a woman who spent her free time racing across the country in airplanes.
Sure, the Miss Subways competition was good fun, but what really made it special was the amazing amount of diversity. Since winners were chosen by ballot, they really represented the people of New York. For example, Thelma Porter was the first African-American Miss Subways . . . and she was elected in 1948. That’s over 30 years before a black woman won Miss America. In addition to Ms. Porter, there were Jewish winners, Hispanic winners, and Asian winners, too. These women were more than just beauty queens. They were the reflection of an entire city.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Wcnghj
Radio Diaries: Miss Subways
New Yorker: Underground Beauties
NY Times: Mona Freeman, First ‘Miss Subways,’ Dies at 87
NY Times: Saw You on the E Train (then-and-now photo gallery of several Miss Subways)