More Cowbell: Homecoming Mums and Garters
by Tori Espensen-Sturges. Espensen-Sturges is an Experimental Psychology major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2008 class "Folklife in America."
From September to November around the state of Texas, one sound can be heard – the ringing of cowbells attached to homecoming mums and garters. “One of my teachers senior year hated mums and garters, and he said that if they jingled during class he would cut off the bells,” remembers Marin Mueller, from Plano. “We all had to take them off before we went to his class and had to tiptoe into the classroom to put them down.”1 To most of the country, these festooned flowers seem gaudy and ridiculous, but in Texas, they represent a tradition as strong as high school football itself. Homecoming mums are large silk chrysanthemums decorated with long ribbon streamers, trinkets, and, of course, cowbells representing the person wearing them and the school they attend. They are made in the school’s colors and can be decorated to reflect involvement in a sports team, musical organization, or other club. Modern mums are often made with two or three flowers and stuffed animals. Whether a single, a double, or a triple, the first mum is typically worn pinned to the chest. Smaller versions, typically with ribbons about eighteen inches long, are attached to garters for boys to wear on their arm. Like a typical corsage/boutonnière exchange, a girl will typically buy her date’s garter and a boy will buy his date’s mum, although oftentimes parents will buy them for their sons and daughters.
Mums as Folklore
For the people of Texas, homecoming mums and garters are definitely folk objects. To determine their status as folk object, we can examine how they fit in to Elliot Oring’s indicators: 1) Communal – Homecoming mums and garters are not only shared by the people of Texas, they serve as a rallying point and a representation of a state identity. They are transmitted face to face between people who share common ideologies and values; 2) Personal – From the perspective of both the maker and the client, homecoming mums are passed on face to face. Many florists who have been making mums for many years, such as Kathi Thomas, learned from their parents. Most other current makers have learned from other florists, either in their shop or, as is the case of Pam Fullerton of Bloomers, from shows and workshops. Students learn about the tradition from older siblings, parents, or other students; 3) Common – The traditions surrounding homecoming, including mums and garters, have been so ingrained into the minds of Texans that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. Nathan Vance of Corpus Christi expressed shock that “they don’t do that in other places.” When interviewed about their feelings on the tradition, a common thread was the phrase “I’ve never really thought about it before;” 4) Informal – Although many people buy their mums and garters from more formal institutions (florists), many get them from crafters or make them themselves. Even in more formal settings, the method of transmission is very definite informal; 5) Traditional – Despite this variation, there are still a definite traditional aspect to mums and garters. The meaning and symbolism them have not changed over time, and are nearly identical around the state. Another consistency is the use of chrysanthemums, school letters, and ribbon. No matter how much bigger and more elaborate mums get, these always stay the same; 6) Marginal – Pop culture dictates current fashion and requires that it fit certain standards. If the judgment of people outside of Texas shows anything, it is that mums exist outside of popular culture and what popular culture dictates should be appropriate. For the people of Texas, however, that is one of their draws; 7) Aesthetic – Even though mums do not fit into what pop culture dictates, there are still certain guidelines that mums must adhere to avoid ridicule or judgment. Part of this probably has to do with the weight high school students place on assimilation, but whatever the reason, the community definitely places standards for what constitutes and “acceptable” homecoming mum; and 8) Ideological – Although homecoming mums and garters may seem like just flowers and ribbon, they represent much more to those who wear them than just the sixty dollars spent. Homecoming mums represent both high school football, commonly referred to as a “religion” in Texas. They also represent the importance of dating and relationships in high school life.
The Homecoming celebration as we know it today can be traced back a century to the University of Missouri. In 1911, the school’s athletic director, afraid the no one would attend their big game, invited the alumni to return to campus to participate in a pep rally, parades, and parties prior to the game. Homecoming corsages probably developed not too long after that. Chrysanthemums have long been regarded as the quintessential fall flower, so it makes sense that they would be incorporated into corsages for the quintessential fall sport. From there, they grew into flowers with a few ribbon streamers attached and the school’s letters, formed out of pipe cleaners, in the center of the flower.
As all things do in Texas, these simple mums grew larger and more ornate. Early mums were smaller, in part because they had no backing strong enough to hold the large ribbon halos found on modern mums. That changed around the year 1972 when George and Janice Barnes of Spring Garden Wholesale in Brownsville, Texas invented a large cardboard circle with a hole in the middle that was aptly dubbed a “mum back.” This innovation led to an explosion in the popularity of mums, as well as a change in their form. These cardboard disks allowed for ribbons to be stapled on a ring surrounding the flower, making mums even larger and allowed another outlet for individualization. Another change came with the introduction of the trinkets that now decorate mums. These trinkets, ranging from musical notes to mascots to sports balls to a plethora of other objects reflecting extracurricular activities, allow for an incredible amount of personalization. No longer did clients have to rely on just block-lettered streamers to display who they were, they could advertise all of their activities and interests. When glitter letter stickers were introduced, it was another huge advancement for the blossoming industry. No longer did florists have to take the time to hand letter each individual mum, and so the process became much less labor intensive, and therefore less time consuming. With less time being put into each mum, makers could make a lot more for any given homecoming celebration. Perhaps the most radical change began in the late 1970s. Up until this point, mums were made with fresh chrysanthemums. This meant that, like any corsage, they had to be made the night before the game and would fall apart soon after. Having to create an entire school’s worth of mums in one day led to florists staying up all night in order to fill orders. Kathi Thomas remembers helping her parents make these mums until she fell asleep in the boxes under the tables. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, however, silk mums began being used, occasionally at first, and then exclusively. This prompted three huge transitions: first, it meant that many, many more orders could be filled because they could be made weeks in advance; second, it took mums out of florists’ shops and into crafts stores; and third, the now permanent mementos began to serve a different function. Up until this point, mums were very similar to corsages. Once florists began using silk flowers, however, there was no longer the worry of the mum falling apart or the flower dying. This caused mums to take on a role as a more permanent keepsake to remind the owner of a date,