There’s so much more to our Carnival season than “Throw me something, Mister!” Here’s five facts about Mardi Gras you might not already know.
1. Mardi Gras as we know it started in Mobile.
Mobile was established as a French colony by Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville, in 1702. The first parade in Mobile was held in 1703. As control of Mobile shifted from the French to the British, French colonists began to form secret organizations they called “mystic societies.” The Cowbellion de Rakin Society began in 1830. Men from these societies spread over to New Orleans, and the first “modern” Mardi Gras celebration here took place in 1835. The Mobile-style of Carnival didn’t stick in New Orleans; through the 1840s and 1850s, Mardi Gras had become so rowdy and violent, city government was ready to abolish public celebrations.
Mobile came to the rescue of Carnival in New Orleans in 1856. Joseph Ellison, a businessman from Mobile, and a former member of the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, joined with five colleagues to form the Mistick Krewe of Comus. They staged a Mobile-style parade in 1857, and that started New Orleans Mardi Gras as we know it.
The success of Carnival in New Orleans gives many in Mobile a huge inferiority complex. New Orleanians, however, don’t really concern themselves with the issue, as a rule. In New Orleans, we know Carnival is a celebration for friends, family, and neighbors, so it’s OK if they do what we do over in Mobile.
2. “Black Mardi Gras” is as old as “White Mardi Gras”
That African-Americans celebrated Carnival along with white folks in New Orleans is not huge news, but many are unaware of how early the black community organized into parading groups. After Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to New Orleans in 1884 and 1885, many local African-Americans began to “mask Indian” for Mardi Gras. As the “Mardi Gras Indian” groups grew in popularity, black men formed different groups, or “tribes,” who then worked hard to outdo the costumes of the others. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition has contributed what is essentially the soundtrack to the Carnival season.
Not only did African-Americans “mask Indian” for Carnival, they also paraded on floats, costumed more like the white parading organizations. One group, the “Tramps,” took to the streets for the first time in 1901. By 1909, the Tramps had grown to the point where they formed a more-organized parade. They chose the African Zulu tribe as their theme. William Story was their first king, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club has become one of the most influential organizations in Carnival.
3. Not all parades have “Kings” or “Queens”
The Carnival krewes that put on parades usually designate one of their number as “king,” and that member leads the parade that year. Since most krewes are male-only, the members will also choose a group of women from their daughters and granddaughters, naming one of the ladies queen. The other women become her court. The women’s krewes often do the same. Some krewes, like the Krewe of Bacchus, name a celebrity as their king.
Not all krewes have a “king.” The Mistick Krewe of Comus designates the annual leader of their parade as “Comus”, the Lord of Misrule from John Milton’s 1637 masque, Comus. The krewe’s leader is not “King Comus,” he is simply “Comus”. The Lord of Misrule carries a jewelled chalice, rather than a sceptre, and remained masked for the entirety of the krewe’s parade. Comus is still anonymous to the general public, even though the krewe no longer parades, only holding their bal masque, on Mardi Gras night. Carnival has another “Lord of Misrule” – that’s what the Twelfth Night Revelers call their “king”.
Other krewes that don’t have “kings” include Proteus (the monarch assumes the persona of the god of the sea), the Knights of Babylon style their leader as “Emperor Sargon”. The Knights of Momus are led by Momus, god of Mirth, and the Krewe d’Etat, keeping with their satirical style, are led by a “Dictator”, whose officers ride a “banana wagon”.
4. Women are just as important to Carnival as the men.
The wives and mothers of men in Carnival organizations have always held great influence in those organizations, going all the way back to the beginning, with the founders of Comus. As the krewes began to name queens and maids, along with choosing a king, the women naturally were closely involved in those choices. By the turn of the 20th Century, many women wanted complete control of the decisions of the krewe. The Krewe of Iris, an all-female krewe, held their first bal masque in 1922, and continue on to this day. Women began their own parades in the late 1940s, and that tradition has continued to this day, most notably with the Krewes of Iris, Muses, and Nyx.
Women have always played a significant role in “Black Mardi Gras.” The Mardi Gras Indian gangs were run by “Chiefs,” and those smaller gangs came together as tribes, led by a “Big Chief.” The wives and girlfriends of the Indians wanted to participate as well, so “Squaws” and “Queens,” even “Big Queens” began to make the walk with their men.
The tradition of walking/marching clubs is as old as the parading krewes. In the early 20th Century, African-American woman, particularly the women who worked in the red-light districts of Storyville and “Black Storyville,” would don baby-doll masks to hide their identities, enabling them to be wild on Mardi Gras Day. A couple of groups of African-American women have revived the “Baby Doll” tradition in recent years, returning us to the early days of Creole/Traditional Jazz.
In addition to the Baby Dolls, women have decided not to be denied when it comes to marching in Carnival parades. Groups such as the Pussyfooters march along with the men’s groups in a number of parades each year.
5. The Carnival bal masque is still an important part of the season
Visitors to the city do not often see the more private side of the Carnival celebration, the balls put on by various krewes. Many of the parading krewes hold tableaux balls, which double as debutante cotillions. The members of the krewe formally present their daughters and granddaughters to society at their ball. Some krewes, such as the massive Krewe of Endymion, changed from holding a bal masque, to a huge blowout bash in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome they call their “Extravaganza.”
Still, the tableaux balls go on strong. A number of the Carnival balls, such as those held by Twelfth Night Revelers, Rex, Comus, and the Knights of Momus, are designated as “official” debutante balls, but other organizations still present the young women of their families at their own events. They are quite the big deal, and, for the most part, are private affairs. Non-members can get invitations to the balls, but they aren’t open to the general public. The lavish costumes of the krewe and their ladies, along with the formal dress of the guests, formal music, and elegant lighting make attending a Carnival ball an exciting experience.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).