Abstract: Queen of Trays: Representations of American Womanhood in Waitress Beauty Contests

Audrey Russek


In the 1920s, the National Restaurant Association began featuring national beauty contests for American waitresses at their annual conventions in Atlantic City. Regional restaurants quickly followed suit, and local waitress beauty contests became a popular publicity gimmick for the industry. This emphasis on a waitress's appearance as critical to her ability to serve customers continued to rise through the next three decades. Restaurant manuals published during this time focused on methods for training and controlling waitress behavior; schools specializing in waitress instruction opened nationwide; and restaurants increasingly subjected women to physical inspections and "charm courses," evaluating women on their height, weight, age, comportment, and personality. In this paper, I argue that the rise of waitress beauty contests was one strategy used by the male-dominated restaurant industry to regulate the feminization of restaurants and control the image of gainfully employed women laboring in a public, professional role. "Service with a smile" not only brought lucrative publicity to restaurants; the public display of waitresses in industry-sponsored contests demonstrates how a lesser-known segment of twentieth-century American business, labor, and foodways reinforced visions of ideal American womanhood, beauty, and citizenship.