Preserving the Maid of Cotton collection

During my internship with the Archives Center I’ve had the opportunity to work on the Maid of Cotton Collection. Running for more than 50 years (1939-1993), the Maid of Cotton program was a beauty contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council. The program was created to promote the cotton growing businesses in the Southern states. Contestants were judged on beauty, personality, intelligence, and poise, but family background was also considered, and many contestants came from families with rich cotton growing histories. Contestants were required to be women between the ages of eighteen and twenty five, never previously married, and born in one of the cotton growing states. 

Finalists at the 1954 Maid of Cotton contest. Maid of Cotton Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The Archives Center has the complete collection of records from the Maid of Cotton program, including administrative files, photographs, scrapbooks, and videotapes. The comprehensiveness of this collection offers researchers a unique documentary record of topics including beauty, racism, feminism, and cultural values.

Maid of Cotton scrapbook.

I’ve had the task of examining the Maid of Cotton scrapbooks, which date primarily from the 1950s and 1960s. Each scrapbook contains newspaper clippings, photographs, and correspondence chronicling a certain year’s Maid of Cotton contest, with special emphasis on the winner and her tour promoting cotton around the United States and the world. I’ve been looking through the scrapbooks, describing their contents, and re-housing items using acid-free archival materials. In order to preserve the scrapbooks, I carefully remove any staples and paper-clips on the loose materials. I then remove any loose materials that are not secured to the scrapbooks and make a separate folder for them. I also document the scrapbook’s contents, noting objects we wouldn’t expect to be in the scrapbook, like contest itineraries and wedding documentation of former Maids of Cotton. The last step is to build custom boxes for each scrapbook. These boxes are for the long-term storage and preservation of the scrapbooks. After this process, the scrapbooks will be prepared for research.

removing staples
Preparing a document for preservation.

Intern Shana Oltmans working on Maid of Cotton scrapbook.

Starting on November 29, 2010, several objects from the collection will also go on display in the case outside the Archives Center, first floor west. Come check out the Maid of Cotton collection for yourself!

Shana Oltmans is an intern with the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.