Mardi Gras lives on
New Orleans didn’t invent the Mardi Gras carnival, but the Louisiana city has given it such a unique heritage that the whole country must have sighed with relief to learn that it would be held in 2006 in spite of hurricane damage.
As almost everyone knows, Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday,” the last day before Lent. In the Middle Ages, the French had a custom of using up all the fats in the home because it was a religious duty to abstain from meat. The church wanted to wean Christians from pagan celebrations held in February, so they changed them to Carnival, literally a “farewell to flesh.”
Memories of Carnival inspired French-Canadian explorer Pierre le Monye to name Mardi Gras Point —on the Mississippi River 60 miles from New Orleans — in 1699.
French settlers in that city held masked balls to mark Carnival as early as 1718 until the Spanish banned them. When the Americans took over the city in 1827, the right to party in masks was restored, and Mardi Gras as it’s known today was born.
The first official parade was held in 1837 with marchers in costume throwing sugarcoated peanuts to the crowd. The first float appeared in 1839 pulled by mules. Things got rowdy by the 1850s, so a secret society called the Mystick Krewe of Comus was formed to plan and organize the celebration. Since then, many societies have been involved.
In 1872, the Krewe of Rex was formed so the people of New Orleans had royalty to welcome the Grand Duke of Russia to the celebration. In 1909, the blacks of the city had their own parade with King Zula mocking the exclusivity of Rex and the white societies.
Mardi Gras has had its share of setbacks, including a collapsed balcony that killed people in the 19th century, and unruly behavior in the streets that caused controversy. It was canceled during the Civil War and both world wars.
Given its long and colorful history, it’s not surprising that postcards documented the celebration throughout the 20th century. Most were made to be sold in the city as souvenirs of Mardi Gras and its colorful parades. Many well-known publishers of the pre-World War I era produced scenes that are gems today and abundant enough to be available at reasonable prices.