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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Canal Street, then as now, has long been a focus of New Orleans parade routes.
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.
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.
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 February 19, 1901 edition of the Pensacola Daily News describes the day’s festivities:
The Daily News continued: