Mardi Gras: The early days of Carnival in New Orleans

It all officially begins on Twelfth Night when a debutante finds the golden bean in her slice of king cake at the Twelfth Night revelers ball. She reigns as queen of the ball, served by her maids who found the silver beans.

And while the rest of the country is clearing away the debris of Christmas, on Jan. 6 of each year New Orleans is off and running into the Carnival season.

Mardi Gras celebrations were initially fueled by the religious observance of Ash Wednesday. It was the last big blast before the solemnity of Lent began.

The 1700s

In the 1700s Mardi Gras was first observed in New Orleans - and early celebrations had a decidedly evil and raucous element, according to Robert Tallant's book "Mardi Gras." Things got pretty bad and Mardi Gras celebrations were curtailed between 1806 and 1823.

The rowdy years

It was illegal to mask between 1817 and 1823 - but some balls were held, according to Perry Young's "The Mistick Krewe, Chronicles of Comus and His Kin," first published in 1931.

Mardi Gras balls, preceded by either and opera production or a play, were very popular. Usually a children's ball preceded the adult event.

For the Carnival of 1819 balls, plays and concerts were on tap and 1820 saw the return of public balls; in 1823 bal-masques resumed and by 1827 street masking was once again permitted.

In fact in 1872 the ball at John Davis's Salle d'Orleans was such a big event that it went past Ash wednesday and on into St. Joseph's Day.

Masked balls became so fashionable that the season was, by law, from Jan. 1 to Mardi Gras. Finally by 1837 the season was increased from the Nov. 1 to the end of May.

The 1838 parade

The first formal parade on Mardi Gras day was held in 1838 when a newspaper report on that Ash Wednesday told of a procession of masqued figures through the public streets...with every variety of costumes...from Harlequin to the somber Turk and wild Indian.

A jolly time

The Daily Picayune noted on the same day that, "Yesterday was a jolly time in our city."

And with the exception of the war years, Carnival has been a non-stop celebration ever since.

There are hints that members of Mobile's Cowbellions were in the Crescent city in 1838. The Cowbellion de Rakin Society in Mobile first marched in that city in 1831 and by 1840 they had floats and a ball with tableaux.

The Times, in a 1874 story, said that Mandeville Marigny has organized the first parade in New Orleans in 1833 but both the Commercial Bulletin and the Daily Picayune reported on what they called the first organized procession in 1838.

By 1841 galloping Bedouin companies roamed the city and costumed balls in the St. Louis Exchange were big affairs.

There were still a number of years when violence marred the holiday, when the celebration seemed to be reverting to its pagan roots. But eventually Carnival settled into a family, social, neighborhood - and eventually tourist - event.

Cowbellions

According to Young, in 1852 following a procession of the Bedouin Company, some of the Mobile Cowbellions adjourned to an Uptown ballroom to participate in the first masked ball of the New Orleans Cowbellions.

Yellow fever reigned in 1853, followed by years of unrest. And then in 1856 a group of young Mobileans who had recently moved to New Orleans met in Dr. Pope's drug store to discuss Carnival. A second meeting followed on Jan. 4, 1857, when the six men from Mobile: S. M. Todd; L.D. Addison; J.H. Pope; F. Shaw, Jr; Jos. Ellison; and Wm. P. Ellison invited a group of gentlemen to a meeting with the purpose of forming a Carnival club.

Mistick Krewe of Comus

The end result was the Mistick Krewe of Comus, which held that year a parade of two floats lighted by flambeaux. Andrews states in his book that on Mardi Gras evening a glittering ball was held at the Gaiety Theatre complete with a festive tableaux.

And thus began Mardi Gras as we know it today.

The Civil War put a hold on festivities from 1860 to 1864 - then Comus returned in 1865. Twelfth Night Revellers paraded in 1870 and was the first krewe to have a queen and to stage a grand march. Miss Emma Butler was the first queen of a Mardi Gras ball - in 1871 - and her king was the Lord of Misrule. It wasn't the same Twelfth Night group as today and that first krewe lasted only seven years.

Rex

1871 was also the year of the grand tour of the United States by the Grand Duke Alexis. Alexis Romanoff Alexandrovitch, His Imperial Highness of Russia was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans in early 1872.

According to historian Leonard V. Huber city officials were scurrying about to find a way to properly greet the brother of the heir apparent to the thrown of Russia.

So this group of business men met in January of 1872 to organize a Mardi Gras procession of maskers. On January 31 of 1872 a public letter was published to the mayor from the "King of Carnival" - Rex - announcing that an organization of wandering maskers would hold a procession on Canal Street on Mardi Gras to honor the Grand Duke Alexis.

A flag was quickly designed; the day was declared a holiday and the Grand Duke observed his first Rex parade from a reviewing stand in front of City Hall. And everyone knows the story of the Grand Duke and his love for the singer Miss Lydia Thompson - and how "If Ever I Cease to Love" was chosen as the official Mardi Gras song.

The first Rex was businessman Louis Soloman and the Boeuf Gras made a re-appearance that year. Rex, clad in a purple, rode a bay charger. Bands played and costumed maskers paraded on foot. That night Comus paraded followed by the traditional ball.

In 1873 Rex held his second parade and his first grand ball; by 1874 he arrived by steamer on the day before Mardi Gras. 1882 was the first meeting of Rex and Comus, when Rex came to greet Comus at his ball.

The School of Design is the working name of the Rex organization.

Momus and his Knights

This 1873 carnival season also saw the birth of Momus although the krewe actually had their first celebration on New Year's Eve of 1872. Momus and his Knights held a gala ball at the French Opera House following this, the first of the Momus parades.

Momus (the Greek god of ridicule, mockery and censure) noted for the satirical bent of its parade - the topic of which was kept secret until the floats hit the street. Momus considers anyone fair game - including presidents of the United States.

In 1876 Momus changes the parade and ball to the Thursday night precedi8ng Mardi Gras. The group took on President Ulysses S. Grant in 1877 - then governor Francis T. Nicholls would up apologizing to the president for the lamblasting of Republican officials.

There was much political upheaval in the late 1870's and jCarnival was once again an iffy prop9osition. 1878 saw the end of the original Twelfth Night group and the beginning of the Phunny Phorty Phellows.

Krewe of Proteus

The Krewe of Proteus arrived in 1882 on the evening before Mardi Gras. And they came out of the den rolling, so to speak, with both a parade and ball.

Proteus, God of the Sea, instituted several Mardi Gras firsts. They issued the first call out - and young ladies invited to that first ball were issued invitations inviting them to dance with the maskers. And it was at that ball that the first ball favors were presented by krewe members to the guests.

It has been said that three or four gentlemen from Comus helped Proteus get started. Comus had grown so large that not all those who wanted to attend could get in.

The famous four

And so the final krewe of the famous four was born. In 1884 was the first Comus was presented when the "five daughters of the Confederacy" were honored.

Some of the old line krewes fell on financial difficulties in the late 1880s and there was much feuding amoung the krewes. But by the 1890s, Carnival had settled into a pattern of lavish balls and midnight suppers, of call outs and elaborate favors.

1890 was the year of the Proteus/Comus incident. Proteus had moved to Mardi Gras night after Comus had come on financially hard times; then Comus was back - and wanted their traditional spot. Neither captain would give - and through a comedy of errors both arrived on Canal Street at the same time.

A mysterious reveler costumed as a domino interceded - Proteus was held back and Comus proceded through. Both paraded on the same night the following year, but without incident and in 1892 Porteus returned to the traditional Monday before Mardi Gras.

The balls

The list of balls began to grow: Atlantians appeared in 1891, the Original Illinois Club - the oldest black Carnival organization in existence - in 1894, 1895 the Elves of Oberon and Nereus in 1896.

Then the High Priests of Mithras, 1897, Olympians, Osiris, Acheans, Mystery, Caliphs of Cairo, Dorians and Prophets of Persia. The prestigeous Mystic Club held its first ball in 1923 and Harlequins in 1925.

Marching clubs

Marching clubs were numerous at the time but only the Jefferson City Buzzards, organized in 1890, survived from the early groups. The Phunny Phorty Phellows disappeared in 1898 only to return in mid-1980s.

Zulu

The forerunner of Zulu - the Tramps - was organized in 1909, followed by the Social Aid and Pleasure Club in 1910. The first king of Zulu was William Story who mocked the old-line organizations by carrying a banana stalk scepter and wearing a lard-can crown.

These first Zulu parades were a spoofs of the uptown krewes - and fortunately for the city, Zulu never lost his sense of humor and remains one of the highlights of Mardi Gras.

Women krewes

First female krewe - Les Mysteriuuses - appreared in 1896, to hold the first of the leap year balls. In the 1900s Les Pierrettes arrived on the scene followed in 1917 by the Krewe of Iris, the Krewe of Elenians and the first parade of women in 1940 - the Krewe of Venus. The Krewe of Iris disbanded in 1929, reformed in 1939 and first paraded in late 1950s.

Neighborhoods

Carollton formed in 1934 - the first of the neighborhood krewes. They rolled out of a den on Oak Steet and through the neighborhoods of Carroll- ton. It is the sixth oldest parading krewe - a traditon on the first Sunday of the carnival season.

In 1934, Carnival moved to mid city with the Krewe of Mid-City and other neighborhood organizations grew - Okeanos, Throth, Freret.

Family groups filled the trucks of the Krewe of Orleanians in 1935. Sponsored by the Elks, this first truck parade followed Rex.

Hermes and Babylon

1937 saw the arrival of the Krewe of Hermes, followed by the Knights of Babylon in 1939.

Hermes was the first of the modern krewes and their members included both businessmen and civic leaders.

The early balls and pagents were described as beautifyl and costly by Tallant. Hermes introduced neon-lighted floats which filled the Friday night before Mardi Gras with light.

Babylon, led by Sargon of Akkad, is noted for special illuminated floats. The parade is always led by the Jester float.

West Bank

Carnival moved to the West Bank in 1932 when Alla, the oldest parade on the West Bank, was formed. In 1935 the Krewe of Chief Choctaw arrived and in 1946 Chocktaw led the revival of river Carnival parades.

Today the West Bank has 10 parades - complete with their own Mardi Gras spectacular - Grela.

Metairie

In 1956, Mardi Gras moved to Metairie in the form of the Krewe of Zeus. Today Mardi Gras in Metairie begins the weekend before Mardi Gras and winds down on fat Tuesday wiht the Krewe of Argus.

Last season 14 parades followed the traditional Metairie route.

Super Parades (Krewes)

The super parades first began in the late 1960s. 1967 saw the first parade of the newly founded Krewe of Endymion and Bacchus followed in 1968. Both parades remain extravaganzas of the highest order - both scrambling to bring in the most visible celebrities to the city.

Zulu had brought the first celebrity king in 1949 when Louie Armstrong was Zulu. Then in 1968 entertainer Danny Kaye wore the crown of purple grapes as the first Bacchus. Endymion, with his magnificently costumed krewe has had grand marshals ranging from singer Paul Anka to party animal Spuds McKenzie.

And the extravaganza race was on.

St. Bernard

Lots of families prefer to party in their own neighborhoods. In the St. Bernard area parades begin the weekend before Mardi Gras and climaxes with Krewe of Carnival on Tuesday.

North shore

Over on the north shore Mardi Gras traditions date back to 1884 when the Knights of Carnival paraded. But there was no great rush to form krewes - and it wasn't until the late 1940s until things started hopping north of Lake Pontchartrain.

Today parades range from the water routed Bilge boat parade to the irrerevent Mona Lisa and Moon Pie and the Covington Lion Club Mardi Gras parade.

River Parishes

The River Parishes have three parades during the Carnival season: Lul, duMonde and Des Allemands.

Gulf Coast

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, groups have been parading since 1908 when Biloxi first had a parade of mule-drawn floats.