The National Cotton Council was founded in 1939 because for too long too many in the cotton industry had been fooled by that mouse trap story.
You might build the best mouse trap anywhere and live, not in a wilderness, but in a crowded city. Even then the world, if it didn't know about you and your snare, would beat a path, not to your door, but to some publicized fellow, even though he had a much inferior contraption for catching mice.
Ever since its inception, the Cotton Council has kept reminding itself that volume business results from generating a full head of promotional steam that, plus having a genuine quality product and offering that product at a price in line with its value or desirability.
Nothing in the Council's long experience points this up more graphically than the Maid of Cotton program carried out on a national scale.
Here was the problem: Cotton, a truly superlative fiber with more naturally built in qualities than any other, had never been able to climb much above the bottom of the modern fashion ladder.
In department stores, tacky calico dresses were being sloppily displayed on basement racks. At bargain counters, style less cotton blouses and skirts were being picked over by indifferent shoppers. The fabric, once proudly worn by preening pharaohs' wives, had become a dowdy, workaday material.
Meanwhile, from Fifth Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard, smart salons were featuring other fibers as the latest in milady's high fashion.
Style starts in the haute couture and filters down so that high style acceptance automatically leads to volume sales. Hence, the question was: How to hoist cotton into high fashion recognition. The answer: Put the right cotton clothes on the right girl and build the right public relations and sales promotion program around her.
To get the right clothes, the Council went to the nation's top fashion designers, who were receptive to the idea of giving cotton a "new look." They appreciated cotton's sew ability, its wash ability, strength, comfort, absorbency, its superb color fastness, and all around versatility. They understood enough about it to believe they could add the true fashion touch. The designers realized, too, that in helping an industry wide effort to give cotton new fashion prestige, some of the luster would be sure to rub off on them.
To get the right clothes shown in the right places, executives of leading department stores in the major metropolitan areas were contacted. They saw how they could boost sales through the appearance of an exciting fashion personality in their stores, and agreed to tie into the promotion with newspaper advertising, radio time, and window displays.
To earn the right publicity, every important type of consumer medium was contacted. Editors were assured that the fashion significance of the Maid's wardrobe was genuine, her role as official representative of the largest U.S. agricultural enterprise was authentic, and that her tour across America and to foreign lands would make news.
To win recognition in Washington, D.C., where cotton was so often bedeviled by legislative uncertainties, key officials were invited to help the Maid create an atmosphere meaningful to cotton in the capital. She would not be a "beauty queen" in the usual sense. Cheesecake would be strictly out of order. The Maid would be like the fresh, wholesome girl who lives next door. She would meet informally and socially with individuals and groups in Washington whose friendship was important to the cotton industry. She would carry official greeting from the Secretary of Agriculture to comparable officials abroad.
To find the right girl, it was decided to stage an annual contest. The basic requirements were, and still are, as follows: To be eligible, a contestant must have been born in one of the 18 cotton producing states, be between nineteen and twenty five, be at least 5 feet 5 inches tall, and never have been married.
But the winner must offer a whole lot more than that. She must represent the far flung American cotton enterprise at home and abroad, both as a diplomat and as a fashion plate. Starting out as a virtual unknown, within a few weeks she must learn to model clothes, give speeches, chat with ambassadors, photograph handsomely, handle a press conference, look relaxed on television, and still maintain the air of an amateur. That takes beauty, brains, and background.
The contest opens in the early fall, and by mid December the 20 best applicants have been selected from a huge stack of questionnaires and pictures. These 20 come to Memphis for two days of final judging.
A seven member judging committee customarily headed by a woman who is a recognized authority in the fashion world narrows the field by relating each girl's dossier to the girl herself and evolving a meaningful appraisal of her potential as a Maid of Cotton: Does she have audience appeal, and is she naturally friendly and spontaneous? Will she make a good model?
She must be in top physical shape to take six months of grueling work in stride. A moody, overly sensitive, headstrong, or temperamental candidate won't make the grade either. The Maid has to work with store officials and community leaders. She must meet members of the President's cabinet and foreign diplomats, and impress them in few minute calls.
The final judging is held in Ellis Auditorium at Memphis. Here the judges check their final impressions against the reaction of a big, live audience. The ultimate choice is the pick of the crop; the girl who exemplifies the young American woman at her best; the most beautiful contestant who also has the best personality and the strongest background of stability and culture.
Over the years, the Council managed Maid of Cotton promotion has paid off many times in terms of good will and prestige, not to mention sales.