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Mardi Gras Porcelain Doll | © Jorge Royan / WikiCommons
Mardi Gras Porcelain Doll | © Jorge Royan / WikiCommons
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A Brief History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Picture of Carolyn Heneghan
Updated: 31 July 2017
Mardi Gras remains one of the most quintessential celebrations associated with New Orleans culture. However, Mardi Gras, also referred to as Carnival, has evolved significantly over the years, both in New Orleans and other places across the globe that celebrate their own version of the holiday.

New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras beginning on January 6th, or the Twelfth Night, as it occurs 12 days after Christmas, through Fat Tuesday. The date of Fat Tuesday changes from year to year based on when the Christian holiday Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent, occurs.

Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras | © skeeze / Pixabay

Mardi Gras history pre-New Orleans

Historians trace Mardi Gras’ origins to medieval Europe, expanding from Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to France. Later, that expansion brought Carnival celebrations to the French colonies, including what would become Louisiana and New Orleans.

“Boeuf Gras,” as it was originally called, first landed in the U.S. via the French settlement Fort Louis de la Mobile, which held the first Mardi Gras in America in 1703.

Early Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans

The French established the city of New Orleans in 1718, and Mardi Gras had become ingrained in the city’s culture by the 1730s. However, the earliest instances of Mardi Gras in New Orleans looked vastly different compared to today.

The late 1830s saw the dawn of street processions that featured masked revelers pulled in carriages or riding horseback and “flambeaux,” or bearers of gaslight torches that lit the way for nighttime krewes. The first Mardi Gras krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, formed in 1856 and became known for their eye-catching floats, masked balls, and anonymity for krewe members.

The second Mardi Gras krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, formed in 1870 and were the first krewe to introduce Mardi Gras “throws.” In 1872, a group of local businessmen organized the first daytime parade, presided over by Rex, the “King of Carnival,” in honor of Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, who was visiting the city. In the grand duke’s honor, the businessmen adopted the Romanoff’s family colors—purple, green, and gold—as the official colors of Mardi Gras.

The Rex Pageant, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, 1907
The Rex Pageant, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, 1907 | © Detroit Publishing Co. / WikiCommons

By 1873, Mardi Gras float construction had moved from France to New Orleans, and krewes began using floats as a way to express opinions and mock public officials and hot-button topics of the day. Mardi Gras became an official holiday with the signing of the “Mardi Gras Act” in Louisiana in 1875.

Mardi Gras krewes began organizing among various communities, such as the Tramps, the forerunner of the all African-American Krewe of Zulu, which launched in 1909. The first all-female krewe, Les Mysterieuses, formed in 1896, and the Krewe of Iris, the oldest all-female krewe still rolling today, first appeared in 1917. Other parades formed around particular neighborhoods, such as Carrollton, which first rolled in 1934 and continues today.

King of Zulu, New Orleans Mardi Gras, 1936 | © Works Progress Administration/Wikimedia Commons
King of Zulu, New Orleans Mardi Gras, 1936 | © Works Progress Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Mardi Gras expands and evolves

Mardi Gras expanded to the West Bank in 1932 with the founding of the Krewe of Alla, and to Metairie in 1956 via the Krewe of Zeus. The first super krewes followed, with the debut of the Krewe of Endymion in 1967 and the Krewe of Bacchus in 1968, both of which continue to be the largest organizations that parade today.

Carnival celebrations in New Orleans continue to retain many of these original traditions while also evolving to incorporate more creativity and self-expression. One modern-day evolution includes the expansion of smaller, often walking parades found in various areas, particularly in the French Quarter, Marigny, and Bywater neighborhoods.