The Waco Cotton Palace Pageant: A 46 Year Tradition

April 21, 2016 Amanda Norman

The Queen's train, Waco Cotton Palace, 1984

This photograph of the Queen’s train in 1984 features the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant, Incorporated’s emblem. This emblem features the Cotton Palace on the shield, cotton, and the Latin phrase sursum corda, which means “lift up your hearts.” Waco Cotton Palace, Incorporated records #2579, box 58, folder 2.

By Amanda Gesiorski, Texas Collection graduate assistant and museum studies graduate student

The Waco Cotton Palace is celebrating its 46th anniversary on April 22, 2016 in Waco Hall at Baylor University. Although the historical production is celebrating 46 years, its roots go back more than 120 years. In 1893, Waco was one of, if not the leading cotton market center in Texas, with 120,000 bales of cotton marketed in the city that year. And so, Waco was the place where Governor James Stephen Hogg opened the first Texas Cotton Palace a year later, which hosted exhibitions on cotton and crowned a “King Cotton” and “Queen Texas.” Even when the original structure burned down in 1895, the popularity of the event led to the establishment (about a decade later) of an even larger Texas Cotton Palace that showcased livestock and agriculture, art exhibits, parades, dairy shows, canning, horse and car racing, concerts, needlework and baking competitions, and the city’s largest social event—the Queen’s Ball. (See images of and about the Texas Cotton Palace here, here, and here.)

Waco Cotton Palace Queen's Ball, 1972

The annual Queen’s Ball follows the Cotton Palace Pageant and serves as a large gala for the participants, allowing the young women to show off their ornate dresses. Waco Cotton Palace, Incorporated records #2579, box 1, folder 11.

Although The Cotton Palace closed its doors in 1930, the memory of the Palace and what it celebrated remained strong among the Waco community. This memory was kept alive through the annual Brazos River Festival and Pilgrimage hosted by Historic Waco Foundation in honor of the Texas Cotton Palace. The Waco Cotton Palace Pageant, Incorporated, formed in 1970 and partnered with Historic Waco Foundation to host a pageant at the Festival. Even when the Brazos River Festival and Pilgrimage ended, the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant remained an annual event.

Scene from Waco Scene from the Cotton Palace pageant, 1985

The Waco Cotton Palace Pageant tells the story of Waco’s cotton growing past. This is the cotton and railroad scene from the 1985 Pageant in Waco Hall. Waco Cotton Palace, Incorporated records #2579, box 58, folder 2.

Continuing through today, the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant, Inc., hosts a number of social events and fundraisers throughout the year in support of their annual pageant and Queen’s Ball. During this pageant, young women and their escorts from all over Texas perform a script that honors Waco’s cotton past. While the pageant traditionally focused on Waco’s founding history and cotton farming days, in 2010, the pageant took a new direction that celebrated Waco’s past and present.

A Waco Cotton Palace dress in design and execution, 1982

Pageant dresses are custom designed for participants, who have some say in the color and details of their dress. This can be seen by looking at the woman’s dress request, the original dress design, and then the final product. This image features Jennifer Nelson and her dress from the 1982 Pageant. Waco Cotton Palace, Incorporated records #2579, box 54, folder 2, and box 56, folder 1.

The Waco Cotton Palace, Incorporated records contain a large number of Pageant committee reports, event and dinner invitations, pageant scripts, advertising agreement, and detailed information sheets on participants that give insight into how the Waco Cotton Palace Pageant, Inc. operates. One of the most notable aspects of the collection is the extensive number of costume and dress designs for the Princesses, Duchesses, Queen, and Royal Escorts. Each of the young ladies participating in the Pageant wears a custom dress for the pageant and Queen’s Ball. These dresses are some of the most iconic features of the Pageant, and their sketches are found in this collection. Also of note in the collection are photographs of the pageants, VHS recordings of pageants from the 1980s through the 1990s, and scrapbooks from 1971 through 2010 that detail pageant events throughout the course of the year.

Confederate Ball scene dress design for 1972 Waco Cotton Palace Pageant

In addition to the dress designs found in this collection, there are also costume designs for the various Pageant scenes. The dress seen here was designed in 1972 for the Confederate Ball scene. Note the swatch of material still attached. Waco Cotton Palace, Incorporated records #2579, box 55, folder 7.

Sources:

Riddle, Jonathan. “Texas Cotton Palace Records. Inclusive: 1894-1931, undated; Bulk: 1910-1930.”  The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

“Waco Cotton Palace.” Waco Cotton Palace Pageant Inc. http://wacocottonpalace.org/. Accessed April 19, 2016.

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