It has been two years since the traditional Mardi Gras parades and the crowds they attract have flooded the streets of New Orleans. After missing in-person Mardi Gras traditions last year, the New Orleans community is ready to jump back into celebrating the way they know how; with beads, bands, floats, and food. There is so much to be excited about as Mardi Gras approaches. Like so many other cultural institutions in this country, Mardi Gras has a complicated history. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. With the French came many Catholic traditions, including an indulgent celebration before the chastity of Lent. In Catholic Europe, this celebration was characterized by rowdy crowds and huge feasts. Carnival season begins with Twelfth Night and ends on Mardi Gras. In New Orleans, during the 18th and 19th centuries Mardi Gras celebrations became increasingly violent. It became impossible to police them because there were no organized parades. Instead, costumed revelers would parade through the streets while onlookers threw flour, and eventually rotten fruit at them from the balconies of the French Quarter in a mockery of debutants throwing sweets as they rode to the aristocrat balls.
It is reported that the first celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans occurred in 1730 when a French settler named Marc-Antoine Caillot and a small group of his friends dressed up in makeshift costumes and crashed a wedding. This celebration was unrecognizable from the Mardi Gras of today. In the 1700s, there were no parades, and Mardi Gras in the Big Easy was centered around aristocratic balls.
Upscale Mardi Gras balls began in 1741, but the earliest reference to a Carnival in New Orleans that resembles today’s celebrations was in 1781 when a Spanish magistrate (New Orleans was under Spanish rule from 1762 – 1803) demanded more segregated festivities. Since costumes and masks were so widespread during Mardi Gras celebrations, people of color could intermingle with white colonists and celebrate with them. During French rule, they even attended the aristocratic Mardi Gras balls held by wealthy Creole (people living in New Orleans of French or Spanish descent) merchants and farmers. When the Spanish took over the city in 1781 they prohibited Black people from masking or attending Mardi Gras balls. Mask bans went in and out of effect in an attempt to segregate revelers. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, most New Orleans inhabitants were of French descent. When American aristocrats moved into the city in the early 19th century, tensions emerged in Mardi Gras ballrooms. By 1852, Americans had seized control of the city. They dominated its government and Mardi Gras celebrations. By the 1850s, Mardi Gras was so dangerous that most people stayed inside, and the streets were overrun by criminals and violence.
In 1857, an American named John Pope established the Gem Saloon committee, a group of wealthy white American men who sought to reform Mardi Gras. They formed the Mystick Krewe of Comus, the first official Mardi Gras parading krewe. Comus took Mardi Gras balls from the Creoles and made them exclusively for rising American aristocrats. They also introduced the concept of an organized and themed parade. Their first parade ended at the Gaiety Theater, where they performed a tableau for their exclusive ball. All of the members were sworn to secrecy, and they formed the Pickwick Club as a front for their secret society.
In 1862, during the Civil War (1861-1865), New Orleans became occupied by the Union Army. The city was plunged into shortages, and Mardi Gras celebrations that year were almost nonexistent. Celebrations and traditions continued to be muted until 1866 when Comus paraded again. After the Civil War, Comus remained closely tied to the ideals of the Confederacy, championing white supremacy and including ex-Confederates in their club and parades. In 1873, Comus put on a parade deriding Darwin’s Origin of Species that included racist images of Black Americans and mocked Ulysses S. Grant, who oversaw Reconstruction. During all of this time, Black people remained excluded from Mardi Gras. This disgusting display was widely applauded by New Orleans high society. In 1870, the second Mardi Gras krewe formed: the Twelfth Night Revelers. It was founded by the Crescent City Democratic Club, which was working towards the same goals as the KKK. The Twelfth Night Revelers introduced throwing trinkets from parade floats and naming a debutant as queen of their parade each year, which both became popular traditions.
In 1873, two more Mardi Gras krewes debuted: the Krewe of Momus and the Krewe of Rex. The Krewe of Rex was founded to honor a Russian duke who visited the city for Mardi Gras that year. In mimicry of royalty, they elected a king named Rex who “ruled” New Orleans for a day. They also commanded those who lived along their parade route to decorate their houses with Rex’s “royal colors” – green, purple, and gold. They became the first krewe to parade during the day. In 1873, Rex picked a queen for the first time. The Krewe of Momus featured floats paying tribute to Scottish novels. The krewe was founded by people impatient with the waitlist to get into Comus and was also primarily made up of ex-Confederates and white supremacists.
From the beginning, these organized parades employed satire in their designs. Comus mocked Reconstruction through offensive depictions of Republican politicians and displays of racism like in their 1873 parade. The first Rex parade, made to honor the visiting Duke, paradoxically poked fun at his supposed affair with an opera singer by playing If I Ever Cease to Love in front of him, a song that the opera singer sang. Zulu took racist stereotypes and made them their own, incorporating them into their parades. This trend has carried into today, and krewes like the Krewe du Vieux are renowned for their satirical displays. Mocking the contemporary constructs of power is a fundamental part of this celebration. It has provided a voice to those, like the original members of Zulu and the Krewe of Yuga, the first gay krewe, who otherwise didn’t have one.
In 1875, Mardi Gras in the Crescent City was canceled. Tensions between white supremacists, many of them prominent members of the parading krewes, and Republicans had erupted into violence. The Twelfth Night Revelers became a ball-only krewe and stopped hosting parades. They remain a ball-only krewe today. Republicans lost control of the city in 1876, and white supremacists and ex-Confederates ensured that the Black population in New Orleans remained oppressed as the efforts of Reconstructionists collapsed.
All of these krewes are now known as old-line krewes. They are the oldest krewes of Mardi Gras, and heavily embedded in the history of racism and white supremacy in the city. Towards the close of the 19th century, they began to shift more towards Rex’s version of festivities, which focused on bringing tourists and money into the city around Mardi Gras.
In 1909, the Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club, which is sometimes considered an old-line krewe, began parading. It was the first all-black parade and mocked many contemporary racist stereotypes such as blackface. The coconuts they painted and handed out at their parades soon became a precious item to catch at Mardi Gras, and the krewe has become a symbol of Carnival. Today, lucky parade-goers are still able to catch these coconuts.
In 1921 Rex introduced the tossing of beads, which became an essential part of parading by the 1980s. Mardi Gras struggled to regain its footing after World War I, and the city began to urge people to start costuming and closed traffic in the French Quarter to encourage parade attendance. In 1934, the city started a public, segregated ball to push back against the exclusivity of the old-line krewes. The city also extended Carnival from a day to a week and then a month. This longer season allowed for more krewes to parade. Neighborhood, or commercial krewes, were founded in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s to fill these spots. These included krewes such as the Krewe of Hermes (which introduced neon lights on parading floats) and the Krewe of Nor (which introduced local high school marching bands in parades).
In 1958, the Krewe of Yuga, the first gay krewe, held its first ball. This krewe sought to mock the stuffiness of the old-line krewes whose members had historically oppressed members of the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who was not wealthy and white. They held their ball for five years before it was raided by the police in 1962. After those arrested were bailed out, several of them formed another gay krewe, the Krewe of Petronius, which still holds balls today that feature elaborate and impressive costumes. In 1964, the Bourbon Street Awards, the largest drag contest in the United States, was started. This contest still takes place today on Fat Tuesday and features hundreds of contestants and enormous costumes that can weigh over a hundred pounds.
1969 ushered in the era of the super krewes. That year, the Krewe of Bacchus rolled for the first time. Founded by a group of businessmen who thought Mardi Gras was dying, this first super krewe focused on being bigger and better than the other krewes. They had three times as many riders on their multi-tiered floats and threw over a million strings of beads their first year. They also invite celebrities to be their king and ride on the first float. Endymion, a neighborhood krewe founded in 1967, was inspired by Bacchus and decided to transform itself into the second super krewe. They opened their membership to any man (women were still excluded) who could pay the membership fee. These super krewes were instantly popular, and although they were still exclusive they were much more inclusive than the old-line krewes. The third and final super krewe was founded in 2012; the Krewe of Nyx. Not only were the super krewes much more popular, but people had begun to criticize the exclusivity of the old-line krewes and saw super krewes as more accessible to the public. Old-line krewes had remained strictly white, male, and Protestant, with few exceptions, since their founding.
In 1991, Dorothy Mae Taylor, the first Black woman to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives, brought the krewes to court and forced them to integrate. If they did not integrate, their parading licenses were revoked. At this time, most krewes consisted of all white males (the Krewe of Iris, founded in 1959, was a notable exception, as it was one of the only all-female krewes). Comus and Momus both stopped parading, and Proteus did too until 2000. To fill the gaps left by these old-line krewes, new, more inclusive krewes, like the Krewe of Muses and the Krewe of Orpheus, sprung up. Comus still holds its debutante ball behind closed doors, and every year there is a “meeting of the courts” where Rex and his queen meet Comus and his queen. Both krewes remain extremely exclusive.
In 2005, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm killed almost two thousand people and caused 81 billion dollars in property damage. In the wake of the destruction, city officials debated but ultimately decided to hold Mardi Gras. It looked different than the celebrations the year before, but it still brought joy and money into the city. Last year, Mardi Gras was canceled for the 15th time in history due to the pandemic and replaced by “Yardi Gras,” where people put elaborate decorations on their front lawns. This year, Mardi Gras is back, and the city has already organized the parade routes. Some of them have changed from previous years due to a shortage of available law enforcement, but the Carnival season is packed with parades for everyone to enjoy.
With organizations like Comus out of the public eye, it is easy to forget the troubled history of these krewes. However, many old-line krewes integrated only in name, and remain extremely white and wealthy. Often the only way to become a part of these secret societies is through marriage, and membership is passed down through the family. It is important to remember this history, which is frequently swept under the floats. To an outsider like myself, the costumes of the Rex riders are a little too close to the oppressive symbols of other masked groups. As I watch them go by this year, I will definitely be thinking about that history and encourage you to as well. I am excited to experience my first in-person Mardi Gras, and also want to be aware of the past as I’m reaching to catch throws. I’ve begun to plan which parades I want to see, and can’t wait to find the best king cake in the city. Amid the rush of tourism that fills the city, this history is often lost, and you have to look for it to find it. Mardi Gras has not always been as accessible as it is for everyone today, and it is important to remember that between slices of king cake and handfuls of beads.
Interested in learning more? Most of the information in this article came from the History of Mardi Gras course taught by Professor Fertel or from the New Orleans Mardi Gras website, https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/.
Featured Photo by Dan Anderson, the New York Times, 2020