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Across the Gulf Coast, people have been celebrating Mardi Gras for centuries. Depending on who you ask, Mardi Gras celebrations started either downriver from New Orleans in 1699 or near what is now Mobile in 1703.

What is known for sure is that ever since, revelers — from the Mardi Gras royalty to the raucous debauchers — have flocked to the Gulf Coast to celebrate the carnival season. In many ways, celebrations have evolved over the years, but in other ways, they aren’t all that different. The Pulse recently took a look back into the archives to check out what Mardi Gras celebrations looked like a hundred years ago.

New Orleans

Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and the beginning of forty days of Lent for many Christians. Traditionally, many observers spent the last day before Lent eating richer, fattier foods, hence the name Mardi Gras — French for “Fat Tuesday.” Over time, these pre-Lenten celebrations grew into a whole season called Carnival, a word which is believed to have evolved from the Latin carnem levare, or “the taking away of meat.”

New Orleans is well-known for being the most popular city of the annual celebration. The Crescent City’s first documented Mardi Gras “parade” took place in 1837.

Mardi Gras parade on Canal Street in New Orleans, circa 1907. (Library of Congress/Special to the Pulse)

Mardi Gras parade on Canal Street in New Orleans, circa 1907. (Library of Congress/Special to the Pulse)

Much hasn’t changed about Mardi Gras: huge crowds still pack streets and grandstands to see the elaborate floats designed by the Gulf Coast’s krewes and mystic societies. The throws are different, though; they didn’t have moonpies 100 years ago, much less some of the elaborate throws flung at today’s New Orleans parades. Some things, though, remain constant — krewes have been lobbing beads and doubloons for more than a century now.

Mardi Gras parade on Canal Street in New Orleans, circa 1907. (Library of Congress/Special to the Pulse)

Mardi Gras parade on Canal Street in New Orleans, circa 1907. (Library of Congress/Special to the Pulse)

Early Mardi Gras festivities consisted mainly of masked revelers celebrating on foot and at masquerade balls. New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras parade was held in 1857 by the Krewe of Comus. The krewe was formed by six men who had moved to New Orleans from Mobile, a point which further fuels the “who was first” debate.

A group of maskers on St. Charles Avenue in 1905. (New Orleans Public Library/Special to the Pulse)

A group of maskers on St. Charles Avenue in 1905. (New Orleans Public Library/Special to the Pulse)

Rex, one of New Orleans’ oldest krewes and the “King of Carnival,” was established in 1872. Rex organized the city’s first daytime Mardi Gras parade and is responsible for the colors — purple, gold, and green — which are now widely synonymous with Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras parade on Camp Street in New Orleans in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress/Special to the Pulse)

Mardi Gras parade on Camp Street in New Orleans in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress/Special to the Pulse)

Canal Street, then as now, has long been a focus of New Orleans parade routes.

The theme of the Rex parade in 1907 was “Visions of the Nations.” The float at the right in the photograph — a Viking ship — was meant to represent Sweden. (New Orleans Public Library/Special to the Pulse)

The theme of the Rex parade in 1907 was “Visions of the Nations.” The float at the right in the photograph — a Viking ship — was meant to represent Sweden. (New Orleans Public Library/Special to the Pulse)

Mobile

Mobile’s Comic Cowboys, formed in 1884, have long been known for their humorous floats, which are usually infused with political satire and commentary. The group’s floats often lampoon both local and national elected officials and make light of current events.

A float in the Comic Cowboys parade on Goverment Street in Mobile, Ala., circa 1898. (University of South Alabama/Special to the Pulse)

A float in the Comic Cowboys parade on Goverment Street in Mobile, Ala., circa 1898. (University of South Alabama/Special to the Pulse)

Mobile is home to dozens of mystic societies, but the Order of Myths, formed in 1867, was Mobile’s first and is the city’s oldest continuous Mardi Gras parading group.

Undated photo of a Mardi Gras parade in Mobile, Ala. (History Museum of Mobile/Special to the Pulse)

Undated photo of a Mardi Gras parade in Mobile, Ala. (History Museum of Mobile/Special to the Pulse)

Pensacola

While King Rex rules New Orleans Mardi Gras, and Mobile has King Felix, in Pensacola King Priscus reigns supreme. The Knights of Priscus Association was formed in 1874.

"The Arrival of King Priscus" in 1908 (UWF Historic Trust/Special to the Pulse)

“The Arrival of King Priscus” in 1908 (UWF Historic Trust/Special to the Pulse)

The February 19, 1901 edition of the Pensacola Daily News describes the day’s festivities:

Never in the history of Pensacola has there been so much jolly sport, such a whirl of social functions or taking of liberties with dignified people as there has been in Pensacola for the past several days. Everybody says the naval and military parade was alone worth the expense of coming to Pensacola to see — and the best of the show, the gorgeous mystic parade and the Coronation ball is yet to come.
Pensacola's C.M.S. Mardi Gras parade in 1900. (UWF Historic Trust/Special to the Pulse)

Pensacola’s C.M.S. Mardi Gras parade in 1900. (UWF Historic Trust/Special to the Pulse)

The Daily News continued:

The program for to-day will include a grand promenade of maskers on the principal streets this afternoon, and visitors who have never witnessed Mardi Gras festivities will see some queer sights. The grand and gorgeous mystic parade, with a number of elaborate illuminated floats in line, will begin at 7 o’clock to-night.
Pensacola's Mardi Gras court, 1902 (UWF Historic Trust/Special to the Pulse)

Pensacola’s Mardi Gras court, 1902 (UWF Historic Trust/Special to the Pulse)

 

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