Choosing symbolic kings and queens for May Day and other festivities is an ancient custom in Europe in which beautiful young women symbolized their nations' virtues and other abstract ideas. At the Eglinton Tournament of 1839 - a re-enactment of a medieval joust and revel held in Scotland in which many distinguished guests took part and which gained much public attention at the time - a Queen of Beauty was chosen, Georgiana Sheridan, the wife of Edward Seymour, 12th Duke of Somerset and sister of noted author Caroline Norton.
The first modern American pageant was staged by P. T. Barnum in 1854, but his beauty contest was closed down by public protest. He previously held dog, baby, and bird beauty contests. He substituted daguerreotypes for judging, a practice quickly adopted by newspapers. Newspapers held photo beauty contests for many decades: In 1880, the first “Bathing Beauty Pageant" took place as part of a summer festival to promote business in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
Contests became a regular part of summer beach life, with the most elaborate contests taking place in Atlantic City, New Jersey (“Fall Frolic”) and Galveston, Texas ("Splash Day"), where the events attracted women from many cities and towns.