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“Miss Subways” was a beauty contest in New York City which celebrated the everyday working girl

Marija Georgievska

For more than 35 years, one contest in New York City celebrated the everyday working girl. “Miss Subways” may not have become as famous as “Miss America”, but in New York City they were local legends.

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Each month, starting in 1941, a young woman was elected Miss Subways. Photo Credit

The competition ran from 1941 to 1976 and each month a winner was chosen by the subway’s riders. The woman who was Miss Subways at any one time appeared on posters placed on New York City subways trains, along with a brief description of her. She was also professionally photographed by the country’s leading modeling agency.

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An advertisement for Miss Subways at the New York Transit Museum. Photo Credit

 

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Winners were usually chosen by telephone-based voting. Photo Credit

It was estimated that in 1957, 5.9 million people saw the current Miss Subways daily, whose picture was shown on 14,000 placards throughout the subway and its trains. At first, the contest, run by the New York Subways Advertising Company, began as a way to get people to notice other advertisements on the trains, but very quickly it became a staple of New York’s culture. Around 200 women held the title during the competition’s run.

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Ruth Ericsson, Miss Subways of December 1941. 

 

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Mona Freeman, Miss Subways of May 1941. Photo Credit

These queens represent the full spectrum of New York’s cultural melting pot, mainly Italian, Latina, Jewish and Irish. In 1947, 36 years before a black Miss America, the first black woman reigned on the trains. Her name was Thelma Potter and at the time, she was a student at Brooklyn College.

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Winners were given bracelets with gold plated subway tokens. Photo Credit

Before the competition was opened to public votes, the winners were hand-picked based on how much they exuded a “girl next door” quality: a kind and honest girl or woman who lives nearby. The winners were picked by John Robert Powers, a model agency millionaire. The girls who were selected were secretaries, nurses, service women, receptionists, sales girls.

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Madeleine Seelig,  one of the Miss Subways. Photo Credit

These girls once represented an idealization of the perfect New York woman, but the company that ran the competition eventually decided that it had lost its social relevance. Finally, after 35 years, the competition came to an end.