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.