Beauty contests, it seems, have always been with us. The ancient Greeks gave us the story of Hera and her stepdaughters Athena and Aphrodite, three goddesses who wanted to know which of them was the fairest of all. Hera’s husband Zeus wisely refused to get involved, and instead appointed a shepherd prince to settle the matter. Not willing to trust the outcome to beauty or the Fates, each goddess bribed the young mortal with promises of wisdom, power, and love. He ultimately chose Aphrodite, who had offered the sweetest reward: the hand of the beautiful (but very married) Helen of Sparta – and as a result sparked the Trojan War.
The Carnival Queen contest at Hampton Beach never ignited any wars (that we know of), perhaps because the contestants sold raffle tickets instead of competing on comeliness. The contenders didn’t possess the cunning of those ancient goddesses, but they were just as determined to win, as some had sold over 10,000 tickets for the honor of being crowned Queen of the Carnival. Starting with the first Carnival Week in 1915 and ending in 1940, the contest produced a total of 26 winners, and was the forerunner of the summer beauty contests that continue today as Miss Hampton Beach.
The Dudley dynasty of beach queens can trace its origins to husband and father Joseph S. Dudley, one of the pioneer businessmen at Hampton Beach. Around the turn of the 20th century, Joe became intrigued by the tourism opportunities of a beach that boasted a first rate trolley system and a spacious new Casino. He and his wife Clara set up a tintype photography business in a tent on the corner of C Street and Ocean Boulevard. The store they operated at the time of Joe’s death in 1942 was located on the same site, which is still owned by members of the Dudley family.
The Dudleys went into partnership with fellow beach business pioneers Joseph and Daisy White. Together they ran Dudley and White, a combination photography studio and variety store. They later added White’s Café, a restaurant that became one of the most popular eating places on the New Hampshire seacoast.
Clara, with two daughters under the age of ten, entered and won the second annual Queen of the Carnival contest in 1916. Her crowning at the bandstand followed a costumed Mardi Gras-style parade down Ocean Boulevard that was attended by an estimated 20,000 spectators. The Hampton Beach Board of Trade presented her with a diamond ring and a bouquet of flowers, and aviator Farnum Fish treated her to an airplane ride, of which she “expressed her experience as delightful.”
In later years her daughters would also compete for the title. Mildred, a Hampton Academy student, was named Queen in 1924. She won a free trip to New York City, to be accompanied by “a chaperone of her own choosing.” She later married orchestra musician Arne Autio and ran Dudley’s Hotel, Gift Shop, and Tea Room at the beach.
Younger sister Dorothy won the contest in 1930, and was crowned amid the same carnival atmosphere as her mother fourteen years earlier. As Mrs. Dorothy Cheney, she owned and operated a clothing and gift shop in the Seagate Hotel on Ashworth Avenue.
The last ticket-selling Carnival Queen was crowned in 1940, and the first Miss Hampton Beach contest was held eight years later. Dorothy’s daughter Carole Wheeler (Walles) continued the family tradition when she became a contestant in 1952, making it to the semi-final round before being eliminated. That was the year Gaynor Jenkins of Montreal, Canada was crowned queen, and the second year in a row that a Canadian had won the contest. Some in the crowd of 15,000 were furious with the judges’ choice, claiming she had been chosen only to promote tourism from Canada. They made their dissatisfaction loudly known, causing the teary-eyed winner to apologize “for not being as popular as I should be.” It was the closest the contest ever came to emulating the ruinous rivalry of the Greek goddesses, or, for that matter, outside at a Trump rally.
Carole didn’t win the coveted crown, but in a contest held in Boston she was voted Miss Saleslady of New England (the Dudley women, needless to say, were pretty good at selling things). Eager to try for the beach title again, she was the first girl to apply in 1953. Joan Ahearn of North Chelmsford, Massachusetts won that year, and Carole participated in the Grand Carnival Ball held in the Casino Ballroom.
I met Carole while doing research for “100 Years at the Beach,” a documentary film on the Queen of the Carnival and Miss Hampton Beach contests. She generously contributed photos and personal stories of her dynastic relatives, adding another rich layer of history to the project.
Sponsored by the Hampton Historical Society, the film will be shown free to the public at the St. James Masonic Lodge in Hampton on Thursday, August 18 at 6:30 p.m. Please join us and decide for yourself which queen was the fairest of them all.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on July 29, 2016.
Family photos courtesy of Carole Wheeler Walles. Dudley & White postcard courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of three books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole.” Her website is lassitergang.com.