Miss Sub­ways ad at the New York City Tran­sit Muse­um by Wcnghj via Wiki­me­dia Commons

Plas­tic sur­geons. Wire­less data plans. Per­son­al injury attor­neys. These are some of the adver­tise­ments New York­ers and tourists see while rid­ing the New York City subways.

Start­ing in the 1940s, how­ev­er, and last­ing until the mid-’70s, next to the ads for shav­ing cream and sav­ings bonds would have been a pho­to of a pret­ty girl.

Wel­come to the world of Miss Subways.

I learned about the Miss Sub­ways con­test while lis­ten­ing to a sto­ry on NPR sev­er­al years ago, and I was blown away. A beau­ty pageant on the sub­way? Really?

I had worked in adver­tis­ing for years so I thought this slice of New York City his­to­ry was fas­ci­nat­ing. And I knew imme­di­ate­ly upon hear­ing the sto­ry that I want­ed to write my next nov­el about it.

But first, I had so many ques­tions: How did the con­test come to be? Who were these Miss Sub­ways win­ners? What com­pelled them to enter the con­test in the first place? What was it like to win? And how did win­ning affect the rest of their lives?

My first step was research. I start­ed with the book Meet Miss Sub­ways: New York’s Beau­ty Queens 1941 – 1976 (Sea­point Books, 2012). The authors, Amy Zim­mer and Fiona Gard­ner, painstak­ing­ly researched the his­to­ry of the con­test. From this book along with arti­cles I read — from out­lets rang­ing from The New York Times to LIFE—I learned about the his­to­ry of the con­test, how it worked, who was involved, its posi­tion in the NYC zeit­geist, and what it meant to a young woman at the time to win.

In the ear­ly 1940s, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­i­ty (MTA) want­ed to increase rid­er morale and draw atten­tion to the adver­tise­ments. So they hired not­ed adver­tis­ing agency J. Wal­ter Thomp­son, which came up with the idea of a month­ly beau­ty con­test. The famed John Robert Pow­ers mod­el­ing agency judged the women, and the winner’s pho­to, along with a brief descrip­tion of her ambi­tions and hob­bies, were print­ed on thou­sands of posters that were seen by mil­lions on their sub­way trav­els. Over the contest’s 35-year exis­tence, 200 women would hold the title of Miss Subways.

Zim­mer and Gard­ner also inves­ti­gat­ed the where­abouts of all 200 win­ners, locat­ed 41 of them, and pho­tographed and inter­viewed the women, uncov­er­ing rich details of their lives before, dur­ing, and after the contest.

Win­ning the title of Miss Sub­ways was a cel­e­brat­ed achieve­ment and the win­ners often became sought after — most­ly in their own neigh­bor­hoods but, on sev­er­al occa­sions, nation­al­ly as well. Mona Free­man, the first Miss Sub­ways in May 1941, went on to have a sto­ried Hol­ly­wood career. Ruth Ericc­son, Miss Sub­ways Decem­ber 1941, received 278 mar­riage pro­pos­als, and Dorothea Mate Hart, Miss Sub­ways June 1942, received 200 tea bags.

What was rev­o­lu­tion­ary was that the Miss Sub­ways posters relayed the win­ners’ ambi­tions, quite unlike any oth­er beau­ty pageant of the time. Eileen Hen­ry, March 1944, want­ed to be a radio direc­tor. Mary Rad­chuck, August 1944, was study­ing to be an inter­preter. Anne Pere­grim, July 1950, hoped to become a com­mis­sioned offi­cer in the Marine Corps. Sure, there were just as many win­ners who sought a career as an ele­men­tary school teacher or want­ed a large fam­i­ly and a home in the coun­try. But the con­test was notable for cel­e­brat­ing women for more — okay, maybe just a lit­tle, but still — than just their appearances.

In addi­tion, Miss Sub­ways win­ners reflect­ed the melt­ing pot of races and reli­gions of the city from whence they came. And though the selec­tion of the first black Miss Sub­ways win­ner, 1948’s Thel­ma Porter, didn’t occur with­out ten­sion and racism, it’s still notable in that the first black Miss Amer­i­ca, Vanes­sa Williams, wasn’t crowned until 1984, almost four decades later.

And many of the Miss Sub­ways win­ners were Jew­ish: Ruth Lipp­man! Pat­ti Free­man! Enid Berkowitz!

The most fas­ci­nat­ing part of my research was inter­view­ing a hand­ful of Miss Sub­ways win­ners, now in their 80s and 90s, to learn first­hand about their expe­ri­ences and how win­ning impact­ed their lives.

The result­ing nov­el, The Sub­way Girls (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), fol­lows two sto­ry lines: 1949’s Char­lotte Fried­man (who’s named after my grand­moth­er) com­petes in Miss Sub­ways. And 2018’s Olivia learns about Miss Sub­ways while doing research for an adver­tis­ing pitch. The sto­ry­lines inter­sect and that’s when the fun begins.

Susie Orman Schnall is the award-win­ning author of The Sub­way Girls, The Bal­ance Project, and On Grace. She’s a fre­quent speak­er, and her writ­ing has appeared in pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The New York Times, Huff­Post, and Harper’s Bazaar. Susie grew up in Los Ange­les, grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, and lives with her hus­band and three sons in New York.