Corn Shucks

Few people in WNC live on farms these days. They know very little about farming. So, for those who don’t know, corn shucks (husks) are the outside covering on an ear of corn. The shucks protect the developing ear. But they have many more uses.

Before there were store-bought doormats, women would make them out of corn shucks. Those doormats worked just as well as today’s rubber or plastic versions. And as a bonus, you did not have to pay for them. People in WNC were much thriftier in the past than they are today. They would not spend a penny on anything they could make or do themselves.

Before 1900, only rich people had mattresses. Back then, people used bed ticks—not insects, but something like large pillowcases—that you stuffed with cotton or other soft materials to thicken the pillows. Poor people would stuff their pillows with corn shucks.

In the 1800s, padded seats were bags stuffed with corn shucks fastened to a chair. In the early 1900s, a doctor in Jackson County still used a chair stuffed with corn shucks that had been in his father’s office because it was more comfortable than the office chairs they made in his day.

Dolls made from corn shucks were being sold at the Southern Highlands Guild in the 1960s and are still made today. Long after the electric lamp came along, mountain women would make lamp shades out of corn shucks.

In the mid-1900s, mountain crafters made hat bands, napkin rings, flowers and bracelets out of corn shucks. Pressed out corn shucks were made into trays, baskets and handbags. During the Civil War, when the Confederate coast was blockaded by Union war ships, hats could not be brought in by ships; so women made attractive hats out of corn shucks.

An early NC state governor said North Carolina women “took the bright straw of wheat, oats and rye and husk of corn and made all manner of headgear, as charming … as came from the shops of France and Italy.”

During the Civil War, Confederate money was called shucks by many.

Pioneers often twisted corn shucks and used them to make ropes and bed cords, as well as collars for horses and mules.

Corn shuckings were big events. After the harvest and the first frost, huge piles of corn were placed in front of a house or barn. All the surrounding families were invited. Food enough for everyone was prepared. It was work and a social event all in one.

Boys would check out the unmarried young girls and vice versa. Many times, young people met their spouse at a corn shucking. Young people seldom saw many people at one time. They typically attended one-room schools, where they learned to read, write and do math, and that was it. A person did not spend 12 years in school. They probably did not spend 12 months in school. At corn shuckings, young people worked hard to make a good impression on the other young girls or boys. Sometimes they would put a red ear of corn in the pile. The boy who found it got to kiss the girl of his choice.

Today, corn shuckings are few and far, and often done in the privacy of homes. They are no longer the community social events that they once were—just relics of the past long gone but not forgotten.

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