Beer has a reputation as being a working man’s drink, but from 1940 to 1965 New York’s Rheingold Beer made their beer synonymous with elegance, beauty, and modernity. Their Miss Rheingold contest drew thousands of applicants each year, with the winner representing Rheingold in advertisements and personal appearances all year long. “According to corporate lore,” says CNN, “in 1959, New Yorkers cast 22 million ballots at 30,000 city taverns and delis–a voter turnout second only to presidential elections.”
In 1956 the lucky winner of the competition was Hillie Merritt, whose winning dress is currently on display at the New-York Historical Society’s Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History. “It was quite a famous contest and I had an agent who said I should go try out,” Merritt told us. “I sort of went on a lark, never thinking for a moment that I would win. There were thousands of women there, we went through a line and showed our pictures, and the next thing I knew I was given a slip that said I should come back. I kept getting these slips and all of a sudden there were 12 of us.”
Plus, Miss Rheingold offered more than just the promise of fame. “I had lived in Japan during the war, and we had lost everything. Iwas making $25 a week at Time Inc., so the $50,000 prize sounded like a great bonus! And this was 1956 money!”
Eventually Rheingold drinkers voted Merritt the winner, and designer Fira Benenson was commissioned to make Merritt a gown. “The dress was designed for me, what Rheingold wanted, but I was very pleased,” said Merritt. After her Rheingold days Merritt stored the dress in her basement, where it remained in great condition for restorers Madame Paulette to work with for the exhibition. They re-conditioned, re-sized, and re-finished the dress to it’s original texture and luster, preserving the delicate embroidery and button-work that makes the dress so unique. There was also padding added around the hips to the mannequin to highlight the workmanship in the skirt.
Being Miss Rheingold “entailed going to openings of grocery stores, going to parades where I’d have my own float,” said Merritt. “We did commercials with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who had the Rheingold Theater. It was a fun time! And they did everything first class.” But there was one thing Merritt would never do as Miss Rheingold: “We were shown pouring a beer into a glass in our hand, but never in anything would they show Miss Rheingold actually drinking a beer.”