Author: Ed Branley
There are many facets to the Carnival celebration in New Orleans, from King Cakes to the Bal Masque, to the debauchery of the Vieux Carre on Carnival Day. But for most New Orleanians, Mardi Gras memories come from parades.
Recap of the Comus parade from 1902 which appeared in the New Orleans Picayune newspaper. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Carnival’s roots go back into the Middle Ages. The first “official” Mardi Gras celebration took place in 1833. Bernard Mandeville de Marigny, a wealthy landowner (and namesake of the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood) sponsored a “creole-style” celebration supervised by city officials. Even though the celebrations were now “official,” they were still quite disorganized and rowdy. In 20 years, the appeals to abolish public Mardi Gras celebrations were renewed.
Float design from the 1910 Comus parade (Photo Credit: Tulane Library)
In 1856, six Anglo-American transplants from Mobile formed a secret society they named the Mistick Krewe of Comus. The krewe held a 2-float night parade on Mardi Gras of 1857, and the modern parade era was born. Comus shifted the focus of Mardi Gras celebrations from citizens carousing in the street to citizens passively watching a parade in the street. The change was such a success that out of town visitors began coming to New Orleans in 1858.
Comus passing the reviewing stand at the Pickwick Club, St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Comus paraded from 1857 to 1861, but suspended their celebration in 1862, because of the Civil War. By 1872, another group of businessmen decided to hold a daytime parade on Mardi Gras. They named their organization The School of Design, and the king of their parade was designated Rex, King of Carnival. Rex paraded regularly from 1872 until 1917, but Comus took a hiatus from parading from 1885 to 1890. During that period the Krewe of Proteus (founded in 1882) moved their ride from Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras) to Comus’ prestigious spot. When Comus returned to the streets in 1891, this created a bit of a conflict. The conflict was settled in 1892 and Proteus continues to parade on Lundi Gras to this day.
Modern Mardi Gras beads. (Photo Credit: nolaimports.com)
What was the secret that got people out into the streets to watch these parades? It’s simple: the riders on the floats throw stuff to the crowd. It started with candies and bon-bons and other small food items. By the 1920s, the krewes began to throw glass beads (often imported from what is now the Czech Republic). These beads were heavy and pretty! You see strands similar to those antique Carnival throws being custom-made by artisans who sell them on sites like Etsy.com. As the imported glass beads rose in price, and krewes needed a much higher volume of stuff to throw, the krewes switched to plastic strands like in the photo above.
Franck photo of a Mardi Gras crowd waiting for a parade on St. Charles Avenue, 1920s. (Photo Credit: HNOC)
More krewes appeared on the scene in the first half of the Twentieth Century as more and more New Orleanians developed the income to participate in parading organizations. The post-WWII years saw a real boom in parading, as veterans returning from the war settled in the various neighborhoods of the city and wanted the opportunity to parade like the older organizations. The Krewes of Choctaw rolled in 1946, then Zulu and Mid City in 1947.
Parading exploded in the 1950s (in spite of a suspension for the Korean War in 1951), with Okeanos, Midas, Orion, Freret, and Gemini. In 1958, parades moved to the suburbs, with the krewes of Arabi (St. Bernard), Poseidon (Algiers), Zeus and Helios (both of these in Old Metairie).
Krewe of Zeus "doubloon" from 1972. (Photo Credit: nolaimports.com)
Suburban parades continued to pop up in the 1970s as white-flight incresed the popuations of Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes. The Krewe of Endymion, which first rolled in Gentilly in 1967, decided to raise the level of their parade to “super-krewe” by the mid-70s, giving the Saturday and Sunday before Mardi Gras incredibly large and exciting celebrations.At the start of the 1960s, The Rex Organization upped the ante, producing aluminum coins, called “doubloons.” Within a year, other krewes followed suit, and the various doubloons were the most sought-after items thrown off the floats. The Krewe of Bacchus debuted in 1969, marking the first “super krewe” parade. Bacchus broke tradition by having a celebrity monarch and a “supper dance” rather than a bal masque.
Krewe of Caesar, a Jefferson Parish organization formed in the 1980s.
The oil bust of the 1980s hit the metro New Orleans area hard, forcing many krewes to disband. Both the city and Jefferson Parish took the opportunity of this downsizing to structure the krewes into more “standard” routes. The city limited krewes to staging on various uptown streets, then rolling down St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street, parading both sides of Canal and disbanding by the river. The exceptions to this basic route is Endymion. Endymion starts by City Park, going down Orleans Avenue to Canal, then Canal to St. Charles, making its way to Lee Circle, then to the Louisiana Superdome.
Carnival parading expanded from the tri-parish metro area into the outlying parishes as the area grew, so there are now quality parades on the Northshore and as far away as Houma.
St. Augustine High School's "Marching 100."
While the African-American community always had its “Mardi Gras Indian” celebrations, blacks who belonged to the Tramps Social Aid and Pleasure Club began a vaudeville-style parade mocking white society in 1910. Instead of throwing food items, the Tramps threw gold-painted walnuts. That tradition evolved to the now-world-famous “Mardi Gras Coconut” thrown by Zulu. While there are references to the Tramps dating back to 1901, they incorporated in 1910. The SA&P changed their name to Zulu in 1916. Zulu hosted the city’s true celebrity monarch when jazz musician Louis Armstrong, Jr., reigned as Zulu The King in 1949. Zulu had its ups and downs until the 1980s. Municipal government, with black mayors and a majority-black city council elevated Zulu to an almost-equals status with Rex and Comus. Zulu rolls from S. Claiborne and Jackson at 8am on Mardi Gras, getting to Gallier Hall to toast the Mayor and other dignitaries before Rex.
A float designed in the shape of a St. Charles Ave. streetcar, parading with a brass band on board. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While there were calls from many parts of the community to not hold a Carnival celebration in 2006 because of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians would have none of it. Krewes and spectators alike took to the streets, giving us all a chance to heal. With the metro area on the mend, Carnival krewes are as well, as we now move forward!
Happy Mardi Gras!
Have you ridden in a Carnival parade? Do you have interesting parade memories? share them here in comments.
Thanks to Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide and MardiGrasDigest.com for reference material for this article, along with Ryan Waldron’s wonderful “Krewe-by-Krewe” series at Seersucker and Sazarecs.
About the Author
A former high school History teacher who now does computer training and social media consulting (Yatmedia.com), Edward is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Working with computers has never diminished his passion for all things New Orleans.
Edward is the author of two books on New Orleans, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. He enjoys sharing his knowledge of the city’s history and culture with readers of his blogs, DailyKos.com, as well as speaking to various organizations in the metro area.
Besides family and friends, Edward’s main passions in life are Creole cuisine, Linux, open source software, Bud’s Broiler burgers, and Hubig’s Pies. Catch up with Edward on Twitter: @YatPundit.
Check out all of Edward’s posts on goNOLA.com.