For nearly 60 years, the Christmas season marked not only a time of joy and cheer for many Mid-Southerners, but also the time for the annual crowning of the Maid of Cotton. From 1939 to 1993, a group of young ladies, their sponsors and National Cotton Council representatives gathered in Memphis, Tenn., immediately after Christmas each year to select a new maid.

The selection process, which had to be completed in time for the new maid to travel to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day, marked the beginning of a whirlwind tour. In the following months, the Maid made stops in many of the fashion capitols of the world, where she was photographed in some memorable settings, including the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal.

The story of the Maid of Cotton is now being featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian in Washington. The exhibit, which contains materials on loan from the Cotton Museum of Memphis, is scheduled to run through March 25, 2011. For more information on the exhibit, go to Smithsonian Maid of Cotton.