Mardi Gras’ origin can be traced back to medieval Europe, but the French-Canadian explorer, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, landed 60 miles south of New Orleans. He named the territory Point du Mardi Gras, which he claimed when he and his men realized that it was the eve of the festive holiday.
Mobile is Mardi Gras’ birthplace, and it began as a demure French-Catholic tradition. However, its first official Carnival association began in 1711 with the Boeuf Gras Society (Fatted Ox Society) in Mobile. They paraded through the streets with a huge bull’s head pushed along on wheels by 16 men. Later, they went on parade with an actual bull swathed in white, to herald the coming Lent.
Succeeding the Boeuf Gras Society was the Cowbellion de Rakin Society (or simply Cowbellions), an assembly of men led by Michael Kraft, a Pennsylvanian cotton merchant. They started a procession with hoes, rakes and cowbells. Ten years later, horse-drawn floats were added to the festivities.
Street processions with maskers, carriages and horseback riders began in the late 1830s. Processions of parading maskers and ornamented carriages were highlighted in the French Quarter. But the festivities were dulled by dreadful weather and wild mischief, and public celebrations began to fade.
Later, in 1857, Mardi Gras celebrations were revived when six young Mobile professionals established the Mistick Krewe of Comus. They generated the enchantment of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Trucks or farm tractors drew stunning floats, known as tableaux cars. It became the first torchlight procession with thematic floats. Young slaves and flambeaux carriers accompanied the tableaux cars, bearing torches to light the streets during the evening parades.
Comus took his place atop the first float, welcoming onlookers with his golden chalice. The second car carried Satan while mischievous demons and devils snaked in between, gamboling around the brass bands. The event was hailed as a “revolution in the street pageantry.” In one evening, Comus succeeded in revivifying Mardi Gras. In forthcoming parades, krewes were patterned after Comus, and since his first arrival, he has closed Mardi Gras with his enchanter’s chalice.
Newspapers began to publicize Mardi Gras events beforehand, and produced “Carnival Edition” parade lithographs and float designs. Themes and designs were steeped in mystery until unveiled. At first, reproductions were small, but by 1886, the Krewe of Proteau pageant, Visions of Other Worlds chromolithographs were issued in “full saturated colors,” drawing attention to the costume and float designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, B.A. Wikstrom and Charles Briton. Paper mache artist, Georges Soulie, used the artist’s designs to construct Mardi Gras costumes and floats.
During the peak of the Mardi Gras Carnival years, from 1870 until the Great Depression of 1930, tens of thousands of revelers crowded into trains or steamboats to take part in the Mardi Gras festivities.
In reverence to a visiting Russian Grand Duke, Alexis Romanoff, his family colors – green, purple and gold – became synonymous with the carnival’s color scheme. By the following year of the Duke’s visit, floats were constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France, concluding with Comus’ Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which outlandish paper mache animal costumes ridiculed both Darwin’s theory and local officials.
Each year, numerous krewes choose a new topic and remodel their float, but some floats are considered timeless, and are recycled annually after some restoration and upgrading. When not in use, floats are stored in studios and storage facilities, often referred to as “dens.” They are pulled back out months before Mardi Gras so the krewes can clean, paint and refurbish the floats to get them prepared for the next procession.
From the first Mardi Gras parade to the present-day festivities, floats are the holiday’s most discernible emblem next to the beads. Whether it is in New Orleans or San Diego, Mardi Gras floats are the cradle of community pride, and a visual portrayal of the unfettered fantasy of Mardi Gras.
By Dawn Levesque