Although native, non-white, foreign, and working-class women found work at many nineteenth-century international expositions posing in various states of exotic dress and erotic undress both for live audiences, for visual artists, and for cameras, for most of that century, white middle-class women avoided being seen in public or being represented in visual media, lest it objectify and demean them and rob them of the status that distinguished them as members of the respectable class. All that changed after the turn of the century with the staging of an explicitly white women’s beauty contest as part of the successful promotion of the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition held in Omaha (Nebraska) in 1898. The region-wide women’s beauty contest that produced “an ideal American head” placed white women’s beauty at the service of the racialist and imperialist ideologies anchoring an exposition whose purpose was to mark Euro-Americans’ “winning” of the West and conquest of its native inhabitants. After the enormous success of this strategy in Omaha in 1898, nearly every international exposition would stage some sort of photographic beauty contest in the run-up to the exposition not only to draw public attention to the event but also to pinpoint a specific white woman capable of embodying a nationalist ideal, conveying the exposition’s central message, or representing the event itself. This paper compares the visual ephemera picturing white women as vehicles of exposition messaging strategically deployed by European and American expositions and charts change over time in the meanings such objects and visual representations held for trans-Atlantic audiences.
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