These photographs were taken by LIFE photographer Alfred Eisentaedt during the 1945 competition in Atlantic City. There were speeches and displays of genuine talent on stage. But more often than not, the images that emerged from the two-day affair featured scores of women, most of whom seemed—and who still seem—to be cut from very much the same physical mold, wearing very small bathing suits and posing or parading in high heels.
That the Miss America title for many decades really meant Miss Caucasian America certainly undercut the pageant’s unspoken but strongly implied claim to celebrate—and judge—an entire nation’s loveliest and most talented women. African-American women did not even begin competing in the pageant until the 1970s, and the first African-American Miss America, the wonderful Vanessa Williams, would not be crowned until 1984—a full six decades after the pageant began.
But that sort of problematic history aside, the Miss America pageant remains a signature cultural happening, while the Miss America Organization provides tens of millions of scholarship dollars annually to thousands of young women who, without that money, might not be able to attend college. In fact, it just so happens that the Miss America featured in this gallery, Bess Myerson—incidentally, the first Jewish winner of the pageant—was the very first Miss America to receive a scholarship as part of her victory prize.
(Photos: Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)