Prior to 1969 about the only way a female could be involved with the FFA was to be a chapter sweetheart. In the early days of the FFA, it was common for a chapter to have an FFA Sweetheart. The Sweetheart was typically voted on by the members and the selection of the sweetheart more often than not was a popularity/beauty contest. The Sweetheart, often wearing a white sweetheart jacket, might represent the chapter in a parade, at the school’s homecoming, or in a county livestock show or fair.
While the position of FFA sweetheart was never sanctioned by the National Future Farmers of America organization, it was often encouraged and promoted at the state level. There were even district, regional, area, and state competitions for the FFA Sweetheart in numerous states. The national FFA did support the sweetheart program by manufacturing sweetheart jackets and other sweetheart related paraphernalia. The National Future Farmer magazine even had a cover showing a national officer crowning the state FFA sweetheart for Arizona in 1956. So there was de facto support for the FFA Sweetheart at the national level and authentic support at the state level.
Since the FFA Sweetheart program was never officially sanctioned by the National FFA and was a grassroots happening, it may not be possible to definitely identify the first school to have an FFA sweetheart and the date when this occurred. The available evidence suggests the FFA Sweetheart (or queen, the title was used interchangeably) appeared in the 1930s. The Rockdale High School (Texas) Yearbook of 1935-36 (Lair, 1936) identifies Jo Murphree as the FFA Sweetheart. The program for the Decatur County High School (TN) FFA Father-Son Banquet for 1937 lists Mabel Miller as the Queen. The first evidence of a Sweetheart in the National FFA Archives is the identification of Ruth Snyder from Fairbury Nebraska in 1939. She was identified as the “FFA Queen,” (Archives of the National FFA Organization, 1939). Lois Thomas of Bridgeport High School in Texas was the school FFA Sweetheart in 1939-40 (The Round-Up, 1940). Her picture was superimposed over the picture of the all-male FFA group picture and she was listed as an officer holding the office of Sweetheart in the list of officers.
Many states had a state level FFA Queen or Sweetheart contest. This activity started in the 1940s and 1950s. Texas started their contest in the late 1940s and Oklahoma started a state Sweetheart contest in 1952 (Etter, 1992). Texas had a runoff system for their state contest. The Malakoff News (1949) reported “Miss Hounsel will be among those to be judged at the District Meet at Tyler, sometime in December. Judged on her personality, appearance, etc., the winner of the “Sweetheart” contest will go to Nacogdoches to be judged with other girls from over the area. Each of the 12 areas of the FFA will choose two girls to represent them at the state contest, to be held in San Antonio.” It appears Oklahoma did not have a runoff system as 172 girls competed for the state crown in 1991 (Etter, 1992). Alabama, Utah, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio, Arizona, South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota, and New Mexico were identified as having a state queen/sweetheart contest. It is probable that many more states had state-level queen competition.
There was even a tri-state FFA Queen competition involving contestants from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (“Murray County”, 1948; “Buckhorn Girl”, 1963 ). The contest was sponsored by the Chattanooga Times and was started in the late 1940s. The competition continued through the 1960s. The queen was chosen on the basis of her school, home, church and community activities along with the activities of the FFA chapter she represented. There were typically 30-40 contestants from the three states involved.
The era of having a state FFA sweetheart queen started to decline in the late 1970s, continued to decline into the 1980s and finally died out in the 1990s. Well, not really. Even today there are some FFA chapters with a sweetheart.
Selecting the Sweetheart
The process for selecting the FFA sweetheart/queen varied. There was no set standard for electing them. However, the most common approach was to have the boys simply vote for the girl of their choice. It was basically a popularity/beauty contest. It was not uncommon for posters promoting the candidates to be displayed in the hallways of the school or around town (Reed, 1975). The practice identified the most was to have each class (Freshman, Sophomore, etc.) have a candidate for the Sweetheart title. But some schools did other things. The Quitman FFA in Cleburne County, Arkansas, held a pageant where girls performed their talents for the audience and judges (Cleburne County Times, 1965.) The Newport FFA in Arkansas had a talent and beauty contest staged by the candidates participating in the contest. (Class of 1953 tidbits, n.d.)
In the earlier days of the FFA the sweetheart candidates were often members of the Future Homemakers of America (FHA). The FHA reciprocated by selecting an FFA boy to be their FHA Beau or King. In rural America, during this era there was considerable cooperation between the FFA and FHA.
What were the responsibilities of the Sweetheart? There is a common thread in the literature that identifies public relations as the major function of the sweetheart. In the book Public Relations for Vocational Agriculture, Cardozier (1958, p. 131-132) expounds on this:
The selection of FFA chapter sweethearts or queens each year is now common practice in most states. Many states also select state sweethearts.Just a few years ago some leaders in vocational agriculture questioned the value of these contests primarily because they have no direct place in educational programs. Who would deny, however, that a pretty young lass as chapter sweetheart does much to help make FFA members proud of their chapter? The selection of a sweetheart actually has some educational values. It encourages boys to improve their social graces and become more competent in social situations. It helps dispel the idea that vo-ag boys are without polish and social acumen.The FFA chapter sweetheart can serve in many ways. She may serve as mistress of ceremonies or honorary chairman at many occasions. Her presence will add to the publicity value of many events…Be sure that the press is invited to functions where the sweetheart will appear.
It was common for the FFA Sweetheart to be part of the Homecoming Queen Court, to represent the FFA in community parades or to represent the chapter in county fair or county livestock show competition. In some counties, each local FFA or 4-H chapter would have a candidate competing for the title of junior livestock queen or county fair queen. In Sonoma County, California it was reported that “Until 40 years ago, girls couldn’t participate in Future Farmers of America. But each FFA chapter selected a Sweetheart, and those girls became good-will ambassadors for the fair and competed for the county title. To be the fair chapter Sweetheart was a really big deal. You got to be introduced at the rodeo, and there was a big pageant held on the opening night of the fair.” (“New Museum”, 2011, p. 4).
The Sweetheart Jacket
The white Sweetheart jacket was first available from the FFA Supply Service Catalog in the spring 1949 issue. The write up in the catalog shares that “this jacket is made of rayon, attractively styled and has a zipper fastener…It has a small F.F.A. emblem with the word[s] ‘Chapter Sweetheart’ below.” FFA chapters were given the option of embroidering Queen instead of Chapter Sweetheart below the emblem on the jacket. Originally, Sweetheart jackets could be purchased in national blue or white, and cost $6.50 plus $0.30 for any additional lettering such as name and chapter on the front right side. (Crutchfield, 2012). The illustration below is from the FFA Supply Service Catalog of 1961-62.
Unlike the boy’s jackets, Sweetheart jackets did not have an emblem or writing on the back. By 1961 the jackets had been changed to corduroy instead of rayon and were available in white or light blue instead of national blue like the boy’s. Finally, in 1964 only white jackets were being produced. The colored Sweetheart jackets are even rarer than the white ones because they were only available for a short period of time. During the 1992 National FFA Convention, delegates voted to discontinue “…selling chapter sweetheart items [and] the National FFA Board of Directors [would] vote on [this] issue in January” (McGary, 1992-93, p. 8). The National Board of Directors agreed to discontinue these items because the Sweetheart jackets were no longer available after the 1992/1993 Chapter Catalog. Since the National FFA stopped producing Chapter Sweetheart paraphernalia general knowledge of the Sweetheart title has diminished.
This Friday Footnote is a condensation of a paper that Jillian Casey (now Ford) and I presented at the national meeting of the American Association for Agricultural Education in 2013. In the paper, we also look at the practice of having a sweetheart today and interviewed eight FFA advisors who still have FFA sweethearts. You might want to read the entire paper. There is also a PowerPoint presentation that could be downloaded if it would be of interest to you and your students (it is loaded with Sweetheart photos – past and present).
Jillian was responsible for much of the research and will be recognized at the NAAE Convention in San Antonio in a couple of weeks as an Outstanding Early Career Teacher. You might print out the paper and go up and ask for her autograph at the convention. She will wonder what is going on!!
1. Typically, in teaching about the history of the FFA, there is little or no mention of the FFA Sweetheart. You might want to borrow some material from the paper or PowerPoint and incorporate it into your lessons about FFA history. .After all, this is a part of the history of the FFA.
2. You could have your students debate or discuss whether or not FFA chapters should have a sweetheart today.
3. Have your students discuss how the FFA Sweetheart program could be re-designed today to make it a positive activity. There are some ideas and suggestions on how to accomplish this in the paper.
4. Have your students do a Google search for “FFA Sweetheart” or “FFA Queen” and have them report on what they learned.
See the paper “The FFA Sweetheart: Past, Present and Future?” for the references used.