Early Mardi Gras parades and costumes transformed the streets of New Orleans into a jubilant open-air theater. Along with exquisite parties and balls and the invitations to attend them, Mardi Gras became a platform for new art forms.
In Mardi Gras Treasures and Float Designs of the Golden Age, New Orleans historian and float designer Henri Schindler writes:
“Though the Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans was always festive, with masked revelers dancing and parading in the streets of the Creole sector, it was not until 1857 that the stunning torchlight procession of the Mistick Krewe of Comus premiered the first floats. In a procession hailed as ‘a revolution in street pageantry, a revelation in artistic effects,’ Comus set the scene for the Carnival majesty that continues today.”
The early Mardi Gras parades with their magnificent floats from 1870 to 1930 are considered the Carnival’s Golden Age. Themes were drawn from mythology, literature, history, nature and pure fantasy.
“The long succession of these glowing, torch lit pageants00with their towering monsters and fantastic decors, their papier-mâché kingdoms and diamond-dust thrones—became the greatest and most beloved of New Orleans communal rituals.”
Mardi Gras technically refers only to Fat Tuesday, but the Mardi Gras season begins on Christian holiday of Epiphany, celebrated on January 6. This is also known as Three Kings Day or the Twelfth Day of Christmas. In many countries including Brazil, the period between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday is known as Carnival.
According to Schindler the festivities:
“…culminated with numerous masked balls, public and private, on Mardi Gras night. There was little gaiety and no Mardi Gras in uptown American sector, but on Mardi Gras the streets of the old Creole city were transformed into a magical, carefree, open-air theater and parade ground. On this final day of Carnival, maskers from every walk of life cavorted with joyous abandon, for the following day was always Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of penance and fasting.”
Carlotta Bonnecaze Was First Female Designer
Among the artists Schindler explores in his book, Carlotta Bonnecaze was the first female and first Creole. Hers were some of the most stunning designs of both costumes and floats in Early Mardi Gras parades. Little is known about her personal life, but fortunately, her artistic life is spectacularly documented.
Carnival Editions of the Picayune showcased designs from early Mardi Gras Parades. Among them were Bonnecaze’s March 9, 1886 designs for 18 floats for the Mystic Krewe of Comus. The theme was Visions of Other Worlds.
According to Schindler, these designs were:
“rooted solely in her formidable imagination — golden salamanders holding high Carnival on the surface of ‘The Sun’; a bevy of scorched black-skinned, blonde-haired female denizens of ‘Mercury,’ seated beneath leafy umbrellas; deranged green and yellow cometmen zipping through space on a chunky ‘Comet’; and six-armed inhabitants of ‘Saturn,’ cavorting amid enormous golden cacti.”
The Uninvited Formed Their Own Krewes
The Mystic Krewe of Comus held its first formal parade in the mid-1800s. The Krewe of Rex, Knights of Momus and later the Krewe of Proteus followed with their own parades and balls. Members of these early clubs were exclusively white males from the upper echelons of New Orleans society. Females were included, but mostly for display. Entrance to elegant festivities was by invitation only. As a result, the uninvited nineteenth-century Mardi Gras Rebels created their own parades and celebrations.
Among the uninvited were those outside the upper social circles, African Americans and members of other racial and ethnic groups. Some women were invited, but they were definitely not decision makers.
Some of our favorite smaller Krewes are the all-female Les Mysterieuses, The Zulu Social Aid And Pleasure Club began as a benevolent aid society and the Baby Dolls, an organization of African American women who worked in the brothels of Storyville.
Mardi Gras Invitations Became Their Own Art Form
Early Mardi Gras parades, floats and costume balls would have been nothing without the stunning invitations and dance cards. Krewes were known for selecting elaborate themes often based in mythology. In the late 1800s Asian themes became popular as people returned from travels with photos, costumes and art objects. The nineteenth-century Mardi Gras invitations reflected these elaborate visuals.
Many of the Nineteenth-Century Mardi Gras Invitations were die-cut chromolithographs, a type of color printing stemmed from lithography. Photochrom postcards were a similar process used widely during this time.
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