Beauty pageant exhibit finally ready to take centre stage at the Provincial Archives of Alberta

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist

As businesses and public facilities around the province slowly begin to reopen, Alberta’s museums, historic sites and archives are also excited to welcome visitors through their doors. And at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA), a new exhibit 18 months in the making is finally ready to take centre stage in the gallery lobby. Prairie Royalty officially kicked off on June 10.

1948 Calgary Stampede Royalty. (Left to Right) Stampede Queen Gloria Klaver, and Ladies-in-Waiting Margaret Forsgren and Shirley Kemp. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P5154.

Prairie Royalty explores the popularity of beauty pageants and competitions in Alberta in the decades after World War II. During this period, the coronations of young and accomplished women as Stampede Queens, Dairy Princesses, Queens of the Winter Carnival, and other local royals were highly anticipated events at community celebrations. More than mere beauty pageants, the competitions factored in community service as well as skills such as speaking ability, product knowledge, horseback riding and, for dairy princesses, their skills at milking cows.

Contestants for the Miss Snow Queen of the Canadian Rockies, 1956.  Left To Right: Nancy Knaut (Miss Camrose), Mary Basso (Miss New Westminster), Geraldine Rowe (Miss Penticton), Elizabeth Le Gras (Miss Calgary), Marina Lynch-Staunton (Miss Crowsnest Pass), Roberta Jones (1955 Snow Queen), Josephine Taborski (Miss Lethbridge), Donagh Webber (Miss Edmonton), Dalyce Smith (Miss Yukon), Elaine Swanson (Miss Medicine Hat), and Prim Heckley (Miss Jasper).  Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, PA270/6.

Inspired initially by a photograph of a Dairy Queen, development of Prairie Royalty took place steadily over a period of 18 months. Selecting the perfect images from the many beauty queens represented in the photographic holdings of the Provincial Archives was a difficult task, and the entire PAA staff pitched in to help narrow down the selection. With final images in place, the exhibit curator researched the images to understand their context more completely, including one involving a news story of a protest outside a pageant. Once the research and writing stage was completed, a designer created the perfect visual identity to capture the exhibit’s playful and nostalgic nature. After completing the installation of the framed images and other graphics in the gallery lobby, the exhibit made its big debut as soon as the PAA could open to the public.

Shirley Clark, 1968 Dairy Princess of Canada. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, PA4399.

One of the more interesting revelations from the research stage was that most individuals involved in these competitions later acknowledged that their fame was fleeting, and being a queen or princess was merely a brief phase in their lives and careers as teachers, mothers, lawyers, artists, activists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists.  In contrast to that perspective, there are those whose experience as prairie royalty has led to a lifetime of community involvement.  Since 1972, the Calgary Stampede Queen’s Alumni Committee, which includes past queens, ladies in waiting, and princesses, has worked with the Stampede organization to promote its events as well as to raise funds for children with special needs in the Calgary area.

Revisit that time when, just for a moment, an everyday Albertan could become Prairie Royalty.  The exhibit will be on display in the PAA’s gallery lobby at 8555 Roper Road until May 2022.  Admission is free. Please consult the PAA’s website at provincialarchives.alberta.ca for the hours and operations. May Queens, Dairy Princesses, Rodeo Queens, and Snow Princesses – long may they reign!

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