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Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 30-52

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A New Cure for Brightleaf Tobacco

The Origins of the Tobacco Queen during the Great Depression

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Figure 1
Across the Depression-era South, rural women made creative use of tobacco leaves to compete for a new kind of crown. Wilson Tobacco Festival, June 1938, courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.
[End Page 30]

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Figure 2
Creative contests featuring young women were part of a broader effort to breath new life into the ailing economy of the tobacco South. Wilson Tobacco Festival, July 1940, courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.

In August 1937 the tobacco warehouses in Wilson, North Carolina, opened their doors to area tobacco farmers, just as they had each year since 1895. But that summer there was a new attraction in town—the first ever Wilson Tobacco Queen, a young woman recently crowned to reign over the annual tobacco marketing season. Though beautiful and radiant, the Wilson queen was hardly unique. At the height of the Great Depression, tobacco queens had suddenly become all the rage. Danville, Virginia, had sponsored its first tobacco-queen contest in 1934; South Boston, Virginia, followed in 1935. In the mid to late 1930s, nearly a dozen brightleaf-tobacco market towns in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia inaugurated queen competitions, and a curious new icon of rural white womanhood took root in the agrarian landscape. Across the Brightleaf Belt, tobacco queens ruled.

It is tempting to dismiss these beauty queens as quaint symbols of rural life, but they were far more than decorative additions to southern tobacco communities. The brightleaf tobacco queens that rose to prominence in the thirties and forties were a shrewd response to the economic problems the tobacco industry [End Page 31] faced during the Depression. The tobacco-queen contest was a local cure with the same underlying goal as the programmatic solutions of the New Deal: to shore up agrarian commerce. In the case of the tobacco-queen contest, however, it was the white female body, and white female sexuality, that provided the fix.

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Figure 3
Among the forerunners of tobacco-queen contests were bathing-beauty revues, designed primarily to attract tourists to seaside towns. Galveston, Texas, was one of the pioneer resorts; this 1927 photograph shows contestants in its "Second International Pageant of Pulchritude and Eighth Annual Bathing Girl Revue." Photograph courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Invoking and altering rituals of rural life that had been familiar to white southerners for decades, sponsors of tobacco-queen contests made women central to the recovery of local brightleaf economies. Viewing these queens in the context of the Depression-era Southeast offers insights into the unusual range of remedies southerners undertook to resuscitate farming and industry. It also shows us one of the avenues by which beauty contests made inroads in the region, a development that, surprising as it may be to many southerners today, was not a forgone conclusion at the time. Finally, the tobacco-queen contests of the 1930s and 1940s reveal the complicated meanings of beauty and beauty contests in rural southern women's lives. Women were undeniably commodified during these commodity crop competitions, yet these contests represented unexpected—and sometimes welcome—changes for rural women of the era.

The Bathing-Beauty Revue

The tobacco-queen contests of the Depression years were novel events in the Southeast, but several rituals anticipated their arrival. One precursor was the beauty contest itself, an eclectic amalgam, as historian of beauty Lois Banner has noted, of high- and low-brow entertainments.1 Many of the high-brow precursors were eighteenth- and nineteenth-century adaptations of Old World chivalry and fertility rituals. May Day celebrations at girls' schools, for example, welcomed the arrival of spring with the crowning of a queen and continued to be held at some institutions well into the twentieth century. The burgeoning...


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