Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Maid of Cotton Records

Collection ID:
Cotton Museum (Memphis, Tennessee)
National Cotton Council
1939-1994, undated
Collection is in
. Some material in
, Philippino, and
Physical Description:
38 Cubic feet
91 boxes
The Maid of Cotton (MOC) beauty pageant was sponsored by the National Cotton Council, Memphis Cotton Carnival, and the Cotton Exchanges of Memphis, New York, and New Orleans from 1939-1993. The contest was held annually in Memphis, Tennessee until the National Cotton Council and Cotton Council International moved to Dallas, Texas. Beginning with the 1985 pageant (held December 1984) the competition was held in Dallas. The pageant was discontinued in 1993 due to lack of funds, a sponsor, and changes in marketing strategies. The records include files on contestants, photographs, and scrapbooks.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
The collection contains the records for the Maid of Cotton pageant (1939-1993) sponsored by the National Cotton Council (NCC), Memphis Cotton Carnival, and the Cotton Exchanges of Memphis, New York, and New Orleans. The collection consists of approximately 38 cubic feet of records created by the NCC in the course of operating the Maid of Cotton contest from 1939 to 1993. The records form the complete archive of this fifty-four year program. The records include administrative files, scrapbooks, photographs, slides, and videotapes.
"One of the main values of the Maid of Cotton collection is its completeness. These are all of the official records of the program, documenting all of its activities throughout its entire existence from 1939 to 1993. As such, it represents a truly unique documentary record and opportunity for research.
Beauty contests have been the subject of serious scholarly study for many years. A search of WorldCat reveals over fifty books on the topic. Scholars have found the subject to be a fruitful springboard from which to study a wide variety of topics, primarily centered around issues of beauty, femininity, culture values, national identity, racism, and feminism.
Beauty pageants serve as symbols that reflect the values of American culture. For example, pageant winners have symbolized the advances made by formerly disenfranchised groups. Vanessa Williams, the first African American to win the Miss America crown (1983), rewrote the definition of beauty in America, and Heather Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America (1995), proved that physical handicaps need not hold anyone back from their dreams. Pageants can provide a focus for the re-examination of our society and culture. The tragic murder of six-year-old Jonbenet Ramsey in 1996 provided a window into what author Susan Anderson calls "the extravagant world of child beauty pageants," that led to public debate about issues of motherhood and adolescence.
In addition, beauty pageants can be viewed in advertising terms: they are the ultimate expression of the tried and true adage that sex sells. All pageants have sponsors and all sponsors want their products to be seen in a positive light. Some sponsors are content to contribute goods and services to the contestants --a new car, a trip to the Caribbean, a fur coat, etc. --so that their generosity can be noted in the publicity surrounding the contest. Others prefer to sponsor the entire program. The Miss Universe contest, for example, was created in 1952 by the Jantzen Company specifically to enable the company to showcase pretty girls wearing its swimsuits. Jantzen abruptly withdrew its previous support of the Miss America pageant when Yolande Betbeze refused to wear a bathing suit during her reign as Miss America 1951. The Maid of Cotton pageant is a highly organized, year-long, very visible public relations program that allows the National Cotton Council to showcase the wonders of cotton through the wonders of young beauty queens. Attractive young women are the perfect vehicle for promoting fashionable fabrics made from cotton.
Cotton --the product at the heart of the Maid of Cotton program --has been central to American economic and political history. NMAH's collecting and research interests reflect this. The Division of Work & Industry contains numerous cotton-related objects and much documentation on the subject. The Archives Center holds several cotton-related collections, including the Peter Paul Haring Papers, 1897-1935, documenting Haring's development of cotton picking machinery; the Lockwood Greene collection of thousands of engineering drawings, many of which were for textile mills; the Robert L. Shurr Script and Scrapbook for a 1939 biographical motion picture on Dr. George Washington Carver; and the Southern Agriculture Oral History Project Records, 1985-1992, which documents modern cotton farming through photography and oral history interviews. In addition, all aspects of cotton production, from farm to factory to finished goods, are documented in several hundred photos in the Underwood & Underwood Agricultural Photonegative Collection, the Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, the Division of Work & Industry Lantern Slide Collection, and the Donald Sultner-Welles Photograph Collection. Cultural aspects of cotton can be discovered in both the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana and in the DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music." (Orr, Craig. "NMAH Collections Committee", memorandum, 2009)
Series 1, Organizational and Pageant Files, 1939-1993, undated., is arranged chronologically by year. Files may contain correspondence, photographs, news clippings, radio commercial scripts, tear sheets, itineraries, trip reports, sheet music, legal documents, waivers, and permissions, and other material related to the Maid of Cotton pageant for that year. Files may also contain subsequent personal information on the Maid of Cotton for that year, for example change of address, news clippings, and the like. This series contains finalist files, trip files and tour report files.
Series 2, Photographs, Slides, and Transparencies, 1939-1994, undated., is arranged chronologically by year. This series contains photographs, slides, and transparencies related to the Maid of Cotton and her travels throughout the United States and overseas. It also contains photographs of the fashions worn by each Maid.
Series 3, Scrapbooks, 1951-1988, contains the scrapbooks created by the National Cotton Council office as well as scrapbooks created by the Maids themselves or others for her. Scrapbooks most often contain news clippings, ephemera, and sometimes correspondence.
Series 4, Audio-Visual, 1991-1993. This series contains video and audio related to the Maid of Cotton. It is currently unprocessed.

This collection is arranged into four series.
Series 1: Organizational and Pageant Files, 1939-1993, undated
Subseries 1.1: Maid of Cotton files, 1939-1993
Subseries 1.2: Little Miss Cotton, 1956-1963, undated
Series 2: Photographs, Slides, and Transparencies, 1939-1994, undated
Subseries 2.1: Photographic Negatives and Transparencies, 1939-1993, undated
Subseries 2.2: Slides, 1939-1993, undated
Series 3: Scrapbooks, 1951-1988
Series 4: Audio-Visual, 1991-1993, undated

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
The Maid of Cotton pageant began in 1939. The annual pageant was sponsored by the National Cotton Council (NCC), Memphis Cotton Carnival, and the Cotton Exchanges of Memphis, New York, and New Orleans. The pageant was held in Memphis, Tennessee, in conjunction with the Carnival until the 1980s.
In mid-December every year the NCC released a list of contestants. Contestants were required to have been born in one of the cotton-producing states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas or Virginia. They might have also been born in the cotton-producing counties of Alexander, Jefferson, Massac, Pulaski, Williamson or Madison, Illinois or in Clark or Nye counties of Nevada. There were usually twenty contestants each year.
Contestants were judged on personality, good manners, intelligence, and family background as well as beauty and an ability to model. A Top Ten were chosen and then a Top Five, and finally second and first runners up and a winner. Winners served as goodwill and fashion ambassadors of the cotton industry in a five-month, all-expense tour of American cities. In the mid-1950s the tour expanded globally. In the late 1950s a Little Miss Cotton pageant was begun but lasted only until 1963 before being discontinued. In the mid-1980s Dallas,Texas took over the pageant, in conjunction with the NCC and its overseas division, Cotton Council International. In 1986, to bolster interest and participation, the NCC eliminated the rule requiring contestants to be born in a cotton-producing state. The pageant was discontinued in 1993, one of the reasons being that Cotton Inc. stopped contributing scholarship money as well as waning public interest and changing marketing strategies. ( website accessed April 2012.)
"The National Cotton Council is the official trade association of the cotton industry. The NCC was founded in 1939 to promote the interests of cotton farmers, ginners, brokers, and manufacturers from the Southern, cotton-growing states. Its mission evolved over the years as new uses for cotton and its byproducts have been found; as competition from synthetic fibers developed; as fashion tastes changed; as government regulation increased; and in response to foreign competition in both farming and manufacturing . The NCC website states that its modern-day mission is "to ensure the ability of all U.S. cotton industry segments to compete effectively and profitably in the raw cotton, oilseed and U.S.-manufactured product markets at home and abroad." Throughout its existence, the NCC has been the contact point for issues affecting its members, legislators in Congress, allied agribusiness, and consumers.
One of the first NCC programs undertaken by to promote the versatility and value of cotton to consumers was the Maid of Cotton program, begun in 1939. This consisted of a beauty pageant open to young women born in one of the seventeen southern cotton growing states. The contestants were evaluated on the basis of beauty, personality, poise, good manners, and intelligence; a family background in cotton production was especially helpful. The girls had to apply for selection to compete in the program. At first this was done directly to the Memphis-based program but eventually a system of state Maid of Cotton programs were established, whose winners went on to compete in the national Maid of Cotton contest. The Maid of Cotton received numerous prizes, whose value and variety tended to increase over the years. In the late 1940s, the program added a scholarship prize, probably in emulation of the Miss America contest. The Maid of Cotton pageant was held each December in Memphis as part of that city's Cotton Carnival festivities. The winner was featured prominently on her own float in the Cotton Carnival parade, was feted at prestigious Carnival events, and was treated as royalty wherever she went. Selection as the Maid of Cotton carried a high degree of status and mature ladies in the South to this day proudly identify themselves as such.
The Maid of Cotton's main function, once crowned, was to serve as a goodwill and fashion ambassador for cotton; any publicity she gained was automatically positive publicity for the cotton industry. Accompanied by an NCC-appointed manager, the Maids embarked on an all-expenses-paid tour. The Maids appeared in full regalia at public events such as county fairs, parades, and holiday events; starred in fashion shows featuring all-cotton outfits; gave speeches to local chambers of commerce and other groups; and in general were the attractive personification of the cotton industry wherever they went. At first, the tours concentrated on the cotton states but they were later extended to major cities outside the cotton belt and came to include visits to legislators on Capitol Hill. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Maids began touring internationally and in the 1970s and 1980s they frequently headed up fashion shows in Asia.
Over time, however, the publicity value of an industry-anointed beauty queen lost its attraction both to the public and --more importantly --to the press. In addition, the role of cotton in the South, particularly in Memphis, declined. In 1986 the contest was moved from Memphis to Dallas. Eventually the cotton industry withdrew its support for the program's scholarships; the 1993 Maid of Cotton was the last to be crowned." (Orr, Craig. "NMAH Collections Committee", memorandum, 2009)

Franklin A. Robinson, Jr.
This collection was processed with a generous donation from Mr. and Mrs. Steven L. and Michelle Pitcher Trulaske, 2010.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
This collection was donated by the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange on October 14, 2009.
Processing Information
Processed by Franklin A. Robinson, Jr., archives specialist and Theresa Worden, intern, 2010-2011, and Shana Oltmans, 2010, supervised by Vanessa Broussard Simmons, archivist.
Addenda from Jean Carter Fisher, 2011; Anne Hubbard Dudley scrapbooks donated by Laura B. Spann, 2013.

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research but the negatives are stored off-site and special arrangements must be made to work with it. Contact the Archives Center for information at or 202-633-3270.
Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements
Gloves must be worn when handling unprotected photographs and negatives. Special arrangements required to view negatives due to cold storage. Using negatives requires a three-hour waiting period. Contact the Archives Center at 202-633-3270.
Researchers must use reference copies of audiovisual materials. When no reference copy exists, the Archives Center staff will produce reference copies on an "as needed" basis, as resources allow. Materials that are stapled should be given first to the reference archivist for removal of the staple before copying. Viewing the film portion of the collection without reference copies requires special appointment, please inquire; listening to audio discs requires special arrangement. Do not use original materials when available on reference video or audio tapes.
Preferred Citation
Maid of Cotton Records, 1939-1993, undated, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Related Materials
Materials in the Archives Center
National Cotton Council Records, circa 1960s-1980s (AC1177)
Southern Agriculture Oral History Project Records, 1986-1991 (AC0773)

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Videocassettes Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Slides (photographs) Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Scrapbooks -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Reports Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Beauty contestants Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Memphis (Tenn.) Geographic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Cotton textile industry Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Cotton industry Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Beauty contests -- United States Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Programs -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographs -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photograph albums -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Audiotapes Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
P.O. Box 37012
Suite 1100, MRC 601
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012