The history of New Orleans Mardi Gras is as colorful and layered as the King Cakes baked to celebrate the season. Also known as Carnival, its deepest origins are believed to go back to ancient Greek and Roman fertility rituals of spring. By most accounts, the party started in America in the late 1600s. It really got rolling in the mid-1800s with parades, floats and costume balls. These would have been nothing without the stunning nineteenth-century Mardi Gras invitations and dance cards that inspired the elegant celebrations we know today.
Technically, Mardi Gras refers to Fat Tuesday, which is the last day rich, fatty foods can be consumed before Ash Wednesday. The season of Mardi Gras begins on January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings (a.k.a. Twelfth Day of Christmas) when King Cakes make their appearance. The party heats up until Ash Wednesday ushers in fasting for the 40-days of Christian Lent. Even during the Victorian Era Carnival celebrations ranged from wild and rowdy to formal and elegant.
Informal parades on foot and horseback had been part of the robust culture of New Orleans since it was a small outpost. In 1857 the secret society of the Mystick Krewe of Comus organized their first formal parade. They chose “Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost” as their theme. Comus held a lavish grand ball that established New Orleans as the center of Mardi Gras in America.
Krewes are organizations that design and sponsor the festivities. More formed over the years. In 1872 the Krewe of Rex and the Knights of Momus began paying for parades and balls of their own. The Krewe of Proteus followed roughly a decade later. They 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.
Dating back to the nineteenth century, Mardi Gras balls have been integral to the debutante system, through which eligible young women are “introduced” to “society.” In the Victorian Era, only those holding Nineteenth-Century Mardi Gras Invitations were allowed to participate.
To this day, the city’s elite use Mardi Gras Krewes as a platform for socializing and networking. During the Carnival season they hold lavish balls. Some are open to the public for the cost of a ticket, but many remain invitation-only events.
This piece from the Times-Picayune Feb. 23, 1887 gives a sense of the elegance experienced by the privileged few who held nineteenth-century Mardi Gras invitations.
“The Queen was attended by two small pages who sat at her feet…One was dressed in pink satin, the other in blue. Their handsome legs were encased in finest silk hose, their feet shod in satin, and upon their handsome heads were caps adorned with feathers. Two gallant courtiers were they, most truly. Each carried a basket of rarest flowers as a gift to their young Queen. The maids of honor were arranged to the Queen’s left and five at the King’s right hand. Beside each one stood the Duke who was to be her escort for the evening. In addition to her crown jewels, the Queen wore clasped on her left arm a superb bracelet, the combined gift of the Dukes of the evening. This bracelet of gold had a large lily of gold leaves with a centre of diamonds.”
Many of the Nineteenth-Century Mardi Gras Invitations were die-cut chromolithographs. This type of color printing stemmed from lithography. When chromolithography is used to reproduce photographs, the term photochrome is frequently used. Photochrom postcards were a similar process used widely during this time. From the mid-1800s, Esther Howland used many of the emerging techniques to launch a lucrative business making Valentines from her home in Worcester, Massachusettes.
According to the New Orleans Public Library, the late nineteenth-century invitations issued by many of the old-line Krewes were often die-cut chromolithographs. They were extravagantly designed to reflect the theme of that year’s ball. Some were intricately folded to reveal even more elaborate designs inside. Many of these invitations, like the costumes, masks, and jewelry worn by members of the Krewe, were ordered from Paris.
“Admit cards were enclosed in invitations and were often as beautifully designed as the invitations themselves. Marked “strictly personal,” these cards could not be passed on to another individual and served to ensure the exclusiveness of the Krewe’s invitation list, made up by the organization’s “invitations committee” and strictly guarded.”
In 1886, the Krewe of Proteus became the first Carnival organization to present full color chromolithograph newspaper editions showing the float designs for its “street pageant.” Other Krewes quickly followed suit, and these “carnival editions” or “bulletins” continued to be printed and sold on street corners for a dime until 1941.
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