Photo courtesy of Ohio County Libary.

A Wheeling Island Beauty Contest from 100 Years Ago

When the Bathing Beauty Contents was first announced, eight girls, “mermaids”, signed up. The contestants flocked from three different towns and from different states, hopeful of their odds against one another. Perhaps they were grateful they would not be asked to do any diving or swimming. The requirements were simple: wear a one-piece bathing suit and look pretty. They would be asked to parade around the pool, where an assembled audience of 4,000 would voice their opinions en masse, via applause, on who was the most “Shapley and popular.” Gladys Jones was not among the first girls to enter this competition. Perhaps the contest appealed to her because she would not have to travel far to attend. She would only need to take a short walk from her home on Wheeling Island to the fairgrounds. By the time she had entered, the odds had gotten much worse. In four days, the number of entries kept going up, 19 then 41, and finally, a total of 75 girls were prepared to face the judges and audience. Gladys, standing beside them, must have felt an odd one out. Most of these girls were hip to the time, slim figures, and wearing the chic new ‘bob’ haircut. On the other hand, Gladys was shorter, with some curves and black curls flowing past her shoulders. She did not fit the beauty standards of 1924, but that did not deter her from competing.

Contests in the Bathing Beauty Contest, Gladys Jones 5th from right. Photo courtesy of Ohio County Libary.

Beauty was undergoing a rollercoaster of change through the 1920s. Women and girls were shedding the tight-laced Edwardian and Victorian fashion of their mothers and grandmothers. Skirts were on the rise, literally, hemlines were creeping upwards. In 1921, The Washington Herald claimed, “Fashion can no longer successfully demand an arbitrary length of skirt and enjoy a general acceptance of the mode.” In this era, there is an increasing focus on freedom of styling choices for women. This shift is perhaps best exemplified and remembered in the “bob.” The dawn of the bob comes from a practical decision made by famed ballroom dancer Irene Castle, who did not want to deal with managing long hair after having her appendix removed. Women across the nation seemed to agree, and the time-saving trend took off. One Wheeling man, a Mr. Front,  who attended the 1924 convention and exhibition of the National Hairdresser Association, saw the appeal of the bob when many in his profession did not. He said, “I have been in Wheeling now for 37 years, and in that time have noticed from time to time that it takes a new style a long time to become popular. I have seen a style come and go overnight, but I have never seen, nor do I remember, a style that lasted and became as popular as bobbed hair…We are living in a fast age. The less a woman has to worry about her hair, the better she likes it. The popular boyish bob and its relatives are a result of what the modern woman wants. She wants something she can run a comb through, tuck a hairpin here and there, and five minutes she is ready and set for anything.” 

Not everyone had the same reaction as Mr. Front. Two months after he praised the bob haircut, a letter was sent to The Wheeling Intelligencer, bemoaning the popularity of the new style. “It says in the Bible that any woman who cuts off her hair shall become diseased and baldheaded,” the anonymous author claimed. The author went on to say that as a “strong, healthy man” he would rather see “my women dead than cut off their hair.” This very man may have been in attendance on the day of the beauty contest, casting a vote the same as anyone.

It was not only hairstyle that promised to sway the minds of those voting in the Bathing Beauties Contest. The good weather of the day made it easy for the girls to partake in the main event: the wearing of a bathing suit. “A number of the leading sporting goods stores in Wheeling are offering bathing suits free to girls who will wear them in the contest,” reported The Wheeling Register when the contest was announced. The popular style was a one-piece wool suit, though some thought it immodest and instead favored a two-piece dress and long shorts combo. Girls were also permitted to wear capes, shoes, stockings, caps, and parasols in order to enhance their chances.

Girls donning caps to accentuate their bathing suits. Photo courtesy of Ohio County Libary.

Girls had many reasons to hope to walk away the winner. Not only would she feel pride at being chosen, her picture would appear in the paper, and she would also receive a silver loving cup trophy. Every girl would be a winner somehow, though, as every contestant would receive a free photograph of herself and a pair of satin bathing shoes. The “mermaids” were also permitted free entry to the fairgrounds, so they could swim all day if they wished. What may have been most attractive to the girls was info provided in a report that came into the management of the contest. One of the local movie houses shared that a representative from one of the Hollywood studios would be on hand for the big event. “One of our own girls may get in the movies,” the Wheeling Intelligencer encouraged girls to enter. “Girls, here is a good chance so don’t fail to enter for you may be the lucky girl.”

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Who’s to say what the girls, most of whom stood barefoot on the wet cement around the pool, felt as they waited to hear who won. Maybe they felt sure of themself, basking in the attention. Maybe parading up and down the specially constructed runway that crossed the pool in front of the 4,000 assembled shook their confidence. While Gladys Jones eyed the trophies, did she feel the pressure, or was she cool as a cucumber? Whatever she felt, she stepped forward when her name was called. With a booming level of applause, the crowd erupted, firmly declaring her the winner. The next day, page two of The Wheeling Intelligencer would state that she was “the only girl with long hair in the beauty contest.” Her name was called one more time to assure she was the winner, and the crowd held strong. Cameras were snapped so pictures of the winners could be displayed in local businesses. Gladys put her hands squarely on her hips and beamed; she had beat out 74 other girls to be crowned the Bathing Beauty.

Gladys Jones, in the middle, after winning the contest. Photo courtesy of The Wheeling Intelligencer.

• Makayla Carney, a Wheeling native, is the 2023-2024 AmeriCorps member for Wheeling Heritage, where she will get to write all about the history and culture of her hometown. She has a B.F.A. in Film and Television from DePaul University in Chicago. She adores all kinds of art, a lavender latte, and the occasional performance on the Towngate Theatre stage.


“Bathing Beauties File Their Entries.” The Wheeling Register, 1924, page 3.

“Bathing Suit Time Is Now Here For Good; You’ll Not Be ‘In The Swim’ Unless Attired in ‘BRADLEY’ Made Swimsuits.” The Wheeling Sunday Register, 1994, page 10.

“Bobbed Hair Is Now Passe Hairdressers Association Says, But J. Front Does Not Agree.” The Wheeling Sunday Register, 1924, page 6.

Curtis, Edith M. “Proper Skirt Length? Each Woman Must Answer For Herself.” The Washington Herald, 1921, page 26.

“Forty-One Girls Enter Bathing Beauty Contest At Fair Grounds.” The Wheeling Intelligencer , 1994, page 11.

“Long Tresses Win In Bathing Beauty Contest.” The Wheeling Intelligence, 1994, page 2.

“Moving Pictures to Be Taken of Bathing Beauties on Sunday.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, 1925, page 10.

“Nine Mermaids Have Entered Contest.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, 1924, page 6.

“Nineteen Girls Already Entered For Bathing Beauty Contest At Fair Pool.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, 1924, page 6.

“One-Piece Bathing Suits Allowed in Bathing Beauty Contest Sunday.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, 1924, page 3.

Over Seventy-Five Entered in Bathing Beauty Contest.” The Wheeling Sunday Register, 1925, page 16.

Peters M.D., Lulu Hunt. “Diet and Health: Much Ado About Something.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, 1924, page 12.

Spivack, Emily. “The History of the Flapper, Part 4: Emboldened by the Bob | Arts & Culture| Smithsonian Magazine.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, 26 Feb. 2013,,to%20as%20the%20Castle%20bob.