Mardi Gras: The Golden Age

PrintPrintEmailEmail If ever I cease to love, May Utile dogs wag their tails in front … May oysters have legs and cows lay eggs, If ever I cease to love.

Rex put on an even grander display in 1873, winding up with the biggest pageant-ball ever seen in New Orleans: four thousand invitations were sent out and eagerly accepted. Comus, stimulated to new efforts, introduced satire in its 1873 parade and tableaux, the theme being “The Missing Links in Darwin’s Origin of Species.” Easily discernible among the grotesque creatures represented in flamboyant papier-mâché were a tobacco grub whose face bore an unmistakable resemblance to President Grant, and a subspecies of hyena reminiscent of Ben Butler, the harsh Union general who had occupied New Orleans in 1862 (see back cover). There was more to this than simple fun, as the civil disturbances of 1874, which prevented the public celebration of Mardi Gras the following year, clearly demonstrated. By 1876, however, the painful days of Reconstruction were receding, and the carnival parades turned to plcasanter motifs.

From 1872 through the 1890—s, carnival societies multiplied fairly steadily. Momus, one of the perennial leaders, was started on New Year’s Eve, 1872, but in 1876 shifted its celebration to the Thursday before Mardi Gras. Like Comus and Rex, it was a prototype for later groups such as Proteus, Atlanteans, Nercus, Elves of Obcron, and Mithras. (Most of them, incidentally, called themselves “krewes,” and the quaint orthography persists today.) Carnival time in the golden age meant fantastic street parades, with costumed masqueraders on floats throwing out trinkets to thousands of excited onlookers; pageants evoking the courtly days at Versailles, with kings and dukes, lovely queens and maids, all performing pretty rituals in lavish costumes; and finally, for each society, a grand march and ball, featuring “callout” dances in which masked krewe members honored chosen ladies from the assembled guests. And, indeed, such has been the basic pattern of the New Orleans carnival and Mardi Gras ever since.