Beauty pageants are marvelous entertainments, except when they're profoundly offensive, cringe-inducingly awful displays of objectification and spooky double-sided tape mojo. But why quibble? Can't they be both? Can't we simply enjoy the spectacle, especially if we're gazing back at it through the scratchy, nonjudgmental lens of several decades?
Example: Say we take a gander at pictures of a Miss America pageant from the middle part of the 1940s. Say those pictures feature women who likely wouldn't even make it through the regional rounds of a major pageant these days. (They look too much like real, live, human females to last into the final stages of the contest.) Say some of those pictures are marvelous snapshots of a time and place that most of us think we know — end of the Second World War, the U.S. emerging as a global superpower, the first glimmers of the "American Century" — but that we actually don't really know at all?
Well, why keep talking about it? Let's take a look. It's the Fourth of July, after all, and it's sort of our patriotic duty to ruminate on all things American. Like beauty pageants. And Atlantic City when it still mattered. And a national landscape that looks, all these years later, so very simple. And wasn't. It wasn't at all.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly feature for The Stacks.