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Miss Subway – A Piece of the City’s past

Miss Subway

From 1941 to 1976, posters depicting head shots of well-groomed, fashionable young women adorned the cars of the New York subway. Those posters gave strap-hangers something to look at, something to read, something to do, during their daily commutes throughout the city. They did more than that, too, as they catalogued, over the years, the changing face of the American woman. They were the posters for the Miss Subway contest, and they’re a piece of a nearly forgotten slice of Gotham’s history.

Begun when World war II had started changing the lives of women on the home front, and lasting until the city’s fiscal crisis, graffiti crisis and women’s liberation made them seem more than pointless, the contest wasn’t about looks. In fact, it wasn’t even about any certain look or style. The first African-American Miss Subway was crowned in 1948, quite a long time before most traditional beauty pageants were even desegregated. And the next year’s winner was a lovely Asian-American New Yorker, proving that Miss Subway did indeed represent the diversity and dreams of her city.

The first 22 years, the contest was judged by the John Robert Powers modeling agency and the New York Subways Advertising Company. After 1963, however, the contest became as democratic as it was diverse. The riders themselves were the voters, choosing who they wanted to represent them and their city. And all of it was done through posters attached to the car walls.

The posters showed a head shot of the young lady. It gave a description of her in broad terms – she’s a Kindergarten teacher, she’s a young wife and mother, she’s a secretary in the city. More importantly, though, is what came after the description – her dreams and goals. The Kindergarten teacher wants a home in the country, the wife and mother wants to see Europe, the secretary would prefer to be an airline stewardess. The goals and dreams of these young women reflect the changing face of women in the city’s – and America’s – society. Those of the 40s are more apt to want a husband, home and family than a career. The vocational choices of the ladies of the 50s revolve around more feminine pursuits – teaching, fashion design, stewardess. The sixties and seventies give us even more of the “modern woman” with posters touting a pilot, and a commercial artist. One theme running through the entire life span of the contest is the number of girls wanting to pursue artistic fields – drama, singing and modeling. Perhaps the opportunity to represent their city at public functions drew the attention of the publically minded lady?

And represent the city Miss Subway did. Some Miss Subways were singers, opening baseball and basketball games with the national anthem, and singing at other events. Some made it on to the public stage, meeting and greeting some of the world’s best known actors – Fred Astaire, for one lucky girl – at premieres and fund raisers. Still others were privileged to meet VIPs and receive invitations to the city’s best parties and hot spots. For some, their fame didn’t go much beyond the sash, and when they hung it up in favor of the next Miss Subway, they returned to their quieter, simpler lives. Others used the title and the exposure to see some of those big dreams and goals come true.

Thanks to photographer Fiona Gardner, we can once again see these lovely, long forgotten faces. In 2004, she learned of the posters and the contest and set out to find as many of the ladies as she could. Her hard work has paid off in the form of an exhibit at the Transit Museum this month, with a book launch to follow in November, featuring 41 former contestants and winners. A far cry from the darkened cars of the subway, Miss Subway has once again come to light.


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