On this day in 1888, the world’s first modern beauty contest is thought to have taken place in the small Belgian municipality of Spa. It’s impossible to tell exactly when beauty pageants began, but they certainly existed in some form or other in the classical world: they were, for instance, a type of entertainment in ancient Troy, where they were judged by an illustrious jury of artists, philosophers, poets and even warriors. In the Ottoman Empire, rulers also entertained themselves with competitions to choose the most gorgeous wife in their harem. And across Europe the traditional pagan May Day festivities usually included the selection of a symbolic king and queen, with a young woman chosen as a fertility symbol because of her beauty.
During the summer of 1888, local newspaper advertisements in Belgium Spa announced that “the most beautiful girl on the planet” was to be selected that autumn in a Concours de Beauté, and girls were encouraged to submit some photographs (still a relatively new technology) of themselves alongside a short written description. It was a popular concept, and there were over 350 applications. The (mostly male) jury selected a shortlist of 21 to appear in the actual pageant, which was a modest affair by today’s standards: men wore tuxedos, women wore long dresses, and the contestants were hidden from the wider public in a secluded wing of a private house and closed carriages that took them to and from the main hall.
On this September day “the most beautiful girl on the planet” was judged an eighteen-year-old Creole girl from Guadeloupe: Marthe Soucaret. She was rewarded with an impressive prize fund of 5,000 francs, as well as the honour of appearing on the cover of French magazine L’Illustration. Sadly, almost nothing is known about what became of Soucaret, and how she lived her life. However, the idea of the beauty queen (as well as the glamorous magazine cover girl) itself certainly became a huge success. The Belgian initiative was taken up by other countries. International beauty pageants gained in popularity, most notably the big four: Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International and Miss Earth.
Uncle Sam is the culmination of a tradition of representative male icons in America which can be traced well back into colonial times. The actual figure of Uncle Sam, however, dates from the War of 1812. Previous icons had been geographically specific, centering most often on the New England area. The War of 1812 sparked a renewed interest in national identity which had faded since the revolutionary war.
The story goes as one Samuel Wilson settled in the town of Troy, New York was known locally as “Uncle” Sam. He later began the firm of E. & S. Wilson. It was through this firm, and the war contracts they acquired in 1812, that Sam gained his notoriety. One such contract was for the supply of meats to the Army. Wilson stamped the barrels with “U.S.” for United States, but soldiers began referring to the grub as “Uncle Sam’s.” The local newspaper picked up on the story and Uncle Sam eventually gained widespread acceptance as the nickname for the U.S. federal government. In the late 1860s and 1870s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began popularizing the image of Uncle Sam. Nast continued to evolve the image, eventually giving Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes suit that are associated with the character today. By the early twentieth century, there was little physical resemblance left between Samuel Wilson and Uncle Sam. As a symbol of an ever-changing nation, Uncle Sam had gone through many incarnations.
Perhaps the most famous image of Uncle Sam was created by artist James Montgomery Flagg. In Flagg’s version, Uncle Sam wears a tall top hat and blue jacket and is pointing straight ahead at the viewer. During World War I, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster. The image, which became immensely popular, was first used on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly in July 1916 with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions. Troy, New York, the town where Wilson lived, calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”