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The May Queen: a mini ‘Miss America’

Tags: queen college

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Photo above: Hiwassee College May Queen and court. May 14, 1936. Original caption says: “Ordered by Hiwassee College,” significant because it tells us the college understood the public relations value of this ritual.

Crowning a College ‘May Queen’ to celebrate May Day. From the 1920s to the early 1960s it was game changer for the young women involved. Then suddenly, it wasn’t. How did society get from one point to the other?

The May Queen ritual didn’t begin in the 1920s, and it didn’t begin in America, either.

“May Day, the 1st of May, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and is held sacred, as well as being a day for merry-making,” noted an Irish folklorist writing in 1893. “We have a Maypole of ash, and dance about it, and a May Queen, whom we crown with wild flowers, selecting the most beautiful girl from the school for queen.”The Journal of American Folklore, 6(23), 259-268. doi:10.2307/533905 Folk-Lore from Ireland. I on JSTOR'>1

The May Queen, May 1851, Graham's Magazine (Philadelphia)
The May Queen, May 1851, Graham’s Magazine (Philadelphia)

Several decades prior, the British had started reviving this age old ritual. “However ancient the practice – perhaps stemming from traditions associated with Maia, Roman goddess of Springtime, and certainly echoing the Medieval tradition of Maid Marian – it saw a resurgence in the Victorian era,” says Rose Staveley-Wadham. ‘To Be Queen o’ the May’ – The History of the May Queen. The British Newspaper Archive.">2

Immigrants to the Appalachian region carried both Irish and British May Queen customs right along with them.

Two decades into Queen Victoria’s reign, for example, The Shepherdstown Register [VA, now WV] reported on a ‘May Party’ held as a town event: “Poplar Hill has been the Floral scene of our May sovereigns for many years. Our band stood ready to greet the May Queen with coronation music. The throne had its drapery of purple and scarlet in Nature’s own gorgeous tapestry of flowers, its pillars two great oaks of God’s carving. A train of lovely children followed their lovelier sovereign elect to the royal seat, and here the tiny crown bearer laid a wreath of lily of the valley upon Queen Mary’s auburn curls, and in poetry set to music by their loving tones, the Floras hailed her Queen of May.”Shepherdstown Register.">3

The real American innovation isn’t hinted at in the Shepherdstown piece, however. America’s colleges in the early years of the 20th century molded a casual tradition into a solemn ceremony, meant to offer the middle class a tool equivalent to the debutante ball of the upper class.

It’s no accident that May Queen courts feature no men, and children only secondarily.

The May Queen ceremony, which most colleges unfurled as a part of spring commencements, was a chance for single women on the cusp of adulthood to showcase their beauty, their charm, and their social poise to potential suitors. It was a marker of good breeding. This was an era when college for women was considered a finishing school, not a place to incubate a career path. The court participants at the college level were always seniors—ready to launch into the world and find a husband.

1909 Ohio University queen and her attendants pose with Ewing Hall as a backdrop.
1909 Ohio University queen and her attendants pose with Ewing Hall as a backdrop.

Eastern Normal School (now Eastern Kentucky University) in the 1910s saw May Day as an opportunity to celebrate not only the “May Queen’s Dance,” but also to showcase various departmental activities: “Lunch was then announced and a cordial invitation ‘to eat and to drink and to be merry’ was extended to all. Meanwhile friends greeted friends and visited the various departments of Domestic Science and Home Economics, in charge of Miss Hevelo, the Handwork Department, taught by Mrs. Pattie Hume, and the Manual Training section, under the charge of Prof. Barnard.”The Richmond Climax.">4

By the 1920s the May Queen framework was becoming more embellished. Marshall University, for its 88th commencement in 1925, presented an elaborate 21 member stage production, ‘The Masque of Spring,’ introduced in a prologue by the only male cast member: “Bad Bees come in for a bit of chastisement, but the world is happy in the reign of Spring. Even mortals crown their queen and rejoice in the earth’s awakening.”Commencement, 1925 ('>5

Brenau College student Candace Bryant Smith and attendants at the school's 1926 May Day festival in Gainesville, Georgia.
Brenau College student Candace Bryant Smith and attendants at the school’s 1926 May Day festival in Gainesville, Georgia.

In this 1926 photo from Brenau College (left) a high ranking school administrator–maybe a provost or the college president–crowns the May Queen. So the celebration is given great honor and prestige at the college. This was almost certainly, like the Marshall event, at commencement.

Below, note the enormous crowd attending Chatham University’s 1939 “May Day Revels and Play.”

This elegantly costumed stage piece draws from the British Maid Marian branch of May Queen mythology:

Set in Sevenoaks Village in 1572, the action was described in the program as follows: “On the first of May the villagers, having chosen their Queen, go into the woods to gather boughs and flowers. 

“Then with merry shouts and blowing of horns they return–singing “Summer is a-coming in”–and dance on the green. Queen Elizabeth, making a royal progress through her realm, arrives with her courtiers and attendants at Sevenoaks village and watches the May revels of the country folk. 

“The May Queen, representing Maid Marian and attended by the village youth who has been chosen to be Robin Hood, rides to the common with her maids, the merry men of the greenwood, and the girls who deck her way with flowers. 

Members of the 1939 May Queen court, Chatham University.
Members of the 1939 May Queen court, Chatham University.

“She is crowned by Robin Hood. In her honor and in honor of Queen Elizabeth, many country dances are performed and the play of St. George and the Dragon, symbolic of the death of Winter and the coming of Spring, is presented. Hobby horses, stilt walkers, tumblers, jesters engage in merry pastimes on the green.”6

Newspaper announcements of May Queen activities dropped dramatically during the WWII years: the number of mentions in 1945 was just over half as many as in either 1941 or 1949. Announcements gradually picked up again from 1946 forward. Court sizes by decade’s end were beginning to shrink compared to the swollen numbers of the mid-1930s. Dorothy Sue Sutton, 1949 May Queen of Western Carolina Teachers College, for example, had a maid of honor and 4 court members.Asheville Citizen-Times.">7

Such social status was attached to the May Queen during this period that bridal announcements throughout the 40s typically included the mention of the young woman’s involvement in this tradition. Court members rode that wave, too. 1942: “She was an attendant to the May Queen at the close of the college year.”The Greenville News, Greenville, SC.">8 1945: “She took an active part in school activities as a member of the student council, the school band, and an attendant to the May Queen.”Hinton Daily News, Hinton, WV.">9 1949: “She was elected as a campus beauty and chosen as an attendant to the May queen.”Johnson City Press, Johnson City, TN.">10 

Being a May Queen opened doors. Betty Mann, 1947 May Queen at Furman University, stepped right into a job with the Veterans Administration at the university. The following year, she was noticed by then-governor Strom Thurmond, who selected her to be Miss South Carolina at the state’s 1948 Azalea Festival in Charleston. 

She married Henry Coleman Jackson, Jr. in 1949 (they stayed married till his death in 1984). Their wedding made the social page of the Atlanta Constitution,The Atlanta Constitution.">11 which also mentioned her May Queen title. He worked for Life Insurance Company of Georgia (where he stayed till retirement). They had 5 kids. She was president of Griffin Utility Club and Dogwood Garden Club, and first woman trustee of First United Methodist Church of Griffin. 

Betty Mann, 1947 May Queen of Furman University, in a May 11, 1947 Greenville News photo.
Betty Mann, 1947 May Queen of Furman University, in a May 11, 1947 Greenville News photo.

So. Stable marriage. Stable employment from her husband. Money enough to raise a big family in a comfortable Atlanta suburb. Time to pursue upper middle class social activities. How many Furman women in Betty Mann’s class would have loved to marry Henry Coleman Jackson Jr.? How many were on his (and many another eligible man’s) radar?

When Betty Mann died at age 90 in 2016, her obituary mentioned her being a May Queen. 

By the late 1950s, the emphasis on the giant court is often stripped back, the focus becomes simply a May Queen holding a bouquet. Jean Wright, the 1960 May Queen for St. Mary’s School at Sewanee [TN], for example, had only one honor attendant.Chattanooga Daily Times.">12 Hagerstown’s Daily Mail, describing Mary Beaver’s crowning as Lebanon Valley College’s 1959 May Queen, makes no mention at all of attendants.The Daily Mail, Hagerstown, MD.">13

Why the smaller court? The terrifying years of the Great Depression were long past, alleviating the frantic rush to find a husband with a good job—or any job! 

And thanks to WWII’s Rosie the Riveter the public was starting to accept the idea of young single women supporting themselves in the workplace (if only until they married). The critical role of the May Queen title—and all those attendants also being recognized—in helping to launch a young woman into the ‘right kind of life’ was starting to lose its grip. Applying for the crown was becoming simply a lifestyle choice, like joining a sorority or not.

About this period the idea of a scholarship being attached to the title enters into the picture, to lend some non-marriage-related incentive to the event.

May Queen coronations continued—and indeed, continue to this day—in the arena of communities, churches, high schools and lower schools.

Left: Western Carolina University May Queen; undated but probably early 1960s from hairstyle. Right: May Queen and 1950-51 All-Expense Scholarship Winner at Talladega College.
Left: Western Carolina University May Queen; undated but probably early 1960s from hairstyle. Right: May Queen and 1950-51 All-Expense Scholarship Winner at Talladega College.

But by the late 1960s, the university cultural milieu had changed. Before the social shift, college women would have been expected to use their education not in the workplace primarily, but in the raising of their children and in service to society (church, non-profit organizations). 

Now, college women were being encouraged to have their own careers, with or without a husband. The Women’s Lib movement frowned on the idea of college as simply a finishing school for middle and upper class women, a place to find a husband. 

It would be hard to imagine a “May-Queen Beauty Shop” being opened in this era, as Greeneville, TN had had in the 1940s.The Greeneville Sun, Greeneville, TN.">14

 By 2011, the collegiate May Queen title had lost so much of its seriousness of purpose, that Somerset, PA gay organizations were able to host ironic May Queen parties without drawing society’s ire.15

The era of the college May Queen title as social springboard to the good life had passed.

More articles on college life:

Salem College is face to face with a tremendous responsibility(Opens in a new browser tab)

A 1926 college yearbook spills its secrets(Opens in a new browser tab)

A certain girl in the Senior Commercial room wrote the following(Opens in a new browser tab)

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