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NOLA History: Mardi Gras Parades

Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans (Photo: Zack Smith)

There are many facets of 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.

The Krewe of Rex on Mardi Gras Day (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Parade Roots

Carnival’s roots go back to 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.

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 Day 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 tourists began visiting New Orleans in 1858.

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 day. 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.

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! As the imported glass beads rose in price, and krewes needed a much higher volume to throw, the krewes switched to plastic strands.

More krewes appeared on the scene in the first half of the Twentieth Century as more residents 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).

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 in parades. 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.

Suburban parades continued to pop up in the 1970s. The Krewe of Endymion, which first rolled in Gentilly in 1967, raised 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.

Krewes Downsize

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 at City Park, rolls down Orleans Avenue to Canal street, then Canal to St. Charles, making its way to Lee Circle, and ending at the 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.

Riders pass out coveted coconuts during the Zulu parade. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Krewe of Zulu

The Tramps Social Aid and Pleasure Club, an African-American krewe, 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” throws by the krewe of Zulu. While there are references to the Tramps dating back to 1901, the krewe 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 rolls from S. Claiborne and Jackson at 8am on Mardi Gras, getting to Gallier Hall to toast the Mayor and other dignitaries before Rex rolls.

*Note: A special thank you to Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide and for reference material for this post, along with Ryan Waldron’s “Krewe-by-Krewe” series at Seersucker and Sazarecs.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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