'Miss Subways': A Trip Back In Time To New York's Melting Pot | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

'Miss Subways': A Trip Back In Time To New York's Melting Pot

Play associated audio

For more than 35 years, riders on the New York City subways and buses during their daily commute were graced with posters of beaming young women. While the women featured in each poster — all New Yorkers — were billed as "average girls," they were also beauty queens in the nation's first integrated beauty contest: Miss Subways, selected each month starting in 1941 by the public and professionally photographed by the country's leading modeling agency.

Photographer Fiona Gardner, captivated by old Miss Subways posters she'd seen, worked with journalist Amy Zimmer to track down 40 of the more than 200 former pageant winners. They've juxtaposed images of those women today with their Miss Subways photographs in their book, Meet Miss Subways. Several former winners featured in the book also shared their stories with the audio documentary project Radio Diaries.

"When you looked at Miss Subways, you were looking at a star, no question about it," Peggy Byrne, a 1952 Miss Subways, told Radio Diaries' Samara Freemark. And when riders gazed at the Miss Subways posters, they were often seeing something more, something unusual: a group of young women far more diverse than other beauty queens at that point in American history.

"Somewhere along the line it occurred to me I had never seen a clearly ethnic name on that poster," says former Miss Subways Enid Berkowitz Schwarzbaum. "My name was distinctively Jewish, and that might have been part of the reason I might have said let's give it a shot. Let's see what happens."

Enid, of course, did go on to take the Miss Subways title in July 1946, when her poster proclaimed that the Hunter College student was "plugging for [a] B.A., but would settle for an M.R.S." — code for a college-educated woman in the market for a husband.

Two years later, Thelma Porter became the first black Miss Subways, more than three decades before Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America in 1983. Latino and Asian Miss Subways all joined their white Miss Subways counterparts before the pageant ended in 1976.

The Radio Diaries story, airing on All Things Considered, was produced by Samara Freemark, with help from Joe Richman and Ben Shapiro, and edited by Deborah George.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Between The Laughs, South African Comedian Hopes To Educate

Trevor Noah, a new international correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, turns a sharp eye on American policy — while answering the questions about world news that people are afraid to ask.
NPR

Will Environmentalists Fall For Faux Fish Made From Plants?

A handful of chefs and food companies are experimenting with fish-like alternatives to seafood. But the market is still a few steps behind plant-based products for meat and dairy.
NPR

Republicans Gather To Galvanize, Share Ideas At 'Freedom Summit'

On Saturday, prominent Republicans from across the country headed to Iowa for the annual Freedom Summit, which supports "pro-growth economics, social conservatism and a strong national defense."
NPR

Virtual Games Try To Generate Real Empathy For Faraway Conflict

A corner of the video game industry is covering the news through immersive experiences. One game transports players into the middle of the Syrian civil war.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.