Amy Schultz conservatively calculates that 6,000 or so small businesses across Texas at this very moment are churning out tens of thousands of homecoming mums, a multi-million-dollar cottage craft industry that nobody keeps track of – except perhaps the IRS.
Schultz, a photographer and artist-in-residence at the Arlington Museum of Art, knows this because she’s in the process of putting together a uniquely Texan multi-media exhibition at the museum on that very topic: A MUMentous Occasion.
The exhibition runs Sept. 27 through Nov. 24.
“I may be in danger of becoming the world’s greatest expert on mums,” Schultz says with a laugh. “If so, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing.”
Though Schultz’s photography focuses on homecoming mum events and students, it was the business side of the industry that first attracted her attention.
“I’m originally from Florida but showed up in Texas in 2002, making a run at a Michael’s store to buy some things for a recently purchased house,” she recalls. “What I found was rows of components with which to make mums, something I’d not experienced.”
THE MUM: “Mum” is an acronym for chrysanthemum, which is hard to say and tricky to spell. It was originally a real flower adorned with a few basic ribbons with the home team’s colors. Mums today are mostly silk flowers adorned with often elaborate ornamentation and school color ribbons; they can be so large they can’t be attached to a blouse or shirt conventionally but are worn more like a necklace.
Mostly it’s a boy asks girl to the homecoming game and gets a ceremonial mum thing, though in today’s more ambivalent society it could also be boy asks boy or girl asks girl.
A homecoming mum should not be confused with, say, a prom corsage, which is much smaller and most typically a real flower. Mums do not lend themselves to dancing in close proximity.
THE HISTORY: Mums – steadily growing in size and elaboration – gained a foothold in Texas in the 1960s. They’ve been around in some form since the early 1900s, but the University of Missouri generally gets credit for first linking mums and homecoming, originally to honor alumni.
“I definitely think it’s mostly a Texas thing, though it is spreading to adjacent states, particularly Oklahoma and New Mexico, and now to many Southern states,” Schultz said. “Generally, even in other states, you’ll find a link with the Texas tradition.”
In the process, the trend has created thousands of typically small pop-up businesses that make mums-for-profit in the homecoming fall season.
EXAMPLE: Awesome Mums is an Arlington-based mother-daughter endeavor that turns out as many as 150 mums annually, the base price starting at $85 and running to as much as $600, the latter an example of a heavily ornamental – and large – mum.
The mother, Brenda Murphy, is a graphic artist whose son in 2008 asked her to make a mum for his date. She did, spending $200 on components.
“I had to pay retail for materials,” she recalls. “But it was one heck of a nice mum.”
So much so that several other families asked her to make mums for their son’s dates. The “Ah-ha” light came on.
“I told my daughter (Kelsey Cline) that I had an idea for a small business for us,” Murphy recalls. “We’ve been making them ever since.”
“It’s not a living, but has become a handy source of alternate income,” Cline says. “I made enough one season, for example, for a down payment on my new pickup.”
They also entertain unusual mum requests.
One girl wanted a “Day of the Dead” mum, homecoming falling on Halloween weekend. Another a Harry Potter theme. Still others prefer unusual ornamentation, like nicknames or small replicas of the instrument they play in the band.
Though most of their orders come from area schools, they also make mums for homecoming in other states – Ohio, for instance, where the mum phenomenon appears to be catching on.
In the three-year study that led to Schultz’s MUMentous Occasion exhibition, she also made another discovery: The Metroplex and Fort Worth are the epi-center of the mum-making world.
“The world’s largest mum-maker web site support member group – www.mums-inc.com – out of Collin County has hundreds of followers, and the world’s largest wholesale supplier of mums materials and building tools – ACI Wholesale Distributing (originally Audria’s Crafts) – is headquartered in a 12,000 square foot building in Fort Worth on McCart Avenue,” Schultz notes. “So far, it’s a growth industry.”
Arlington Museum of Art
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O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.