The Daily Picayune. Special Carnival issue: Feb. 11, 1902; Comus. (New Orleans, La. : F.A. Lumsden & G.W. Kendall)
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With Carnival season in full swing and Mardi Gras day fast approaching, Hill Memorial would like to highlight a few examples of Mardi Gras ephemera from LSU’s Special Collections.
The French brought Carnival traditions overseas to Colonial French Louisiana in the late 17th century. It is unknown when carnival celebrations first took place in New Orleans. Historical records from the 1730s-1740s make mention of established Carnival balls and masking throughout the city. Organization of the first Carnival krewe in New Orleans, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, is dated 1856. The Civil War and Reconstruction shut down Carnival celebrations for several years. Eventually new krewes and societies emerged by 1870 and Carnival experienced a rebirth of sorts. In 1872 Mardi Gras was declared a Louisiana state holiday when Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act”. The formative years of Carnival in New Orleans mark the start of many traditions and customs still carried on today, primarily the use of an annual theme chosen by each krewe. Mardi Gras has grown and evolved over the years to become a true New Orleans institution. Like most things in the Crescent City, Carnival is an amalgamation of cultural traditions representative of its diversified communities.
Early Invitations and Dance Cards
Despite changing times, the mainstay of Carnival has always been spectacle and visual opulence. Early krewes relied on artists and artisans to design and create processional floats, costumes, tableaux and all manner of krewe related ephemera. Lithographers in France and New Orleans replicated these designs printing ball invitations and dance cards. The onset of chromolithography brought imagery and graphic mass production to great heights in the late Victorian era. During the 1880s through the turn of the century, the artistry of Carnival invitations grew with advancements in lithography and mass production technologies like die-cut. Invitations became tiny works of art depicting each krewe’s theme for the season. At this time most Carnival balls were private affairs and required an invitation for admittance. Invitations were so highly prized they were hand-delivered by courier, not by post. By the early 20th century, invitation styles changed and krewes adopted a more modern look.
Most of the artist, artisans and printers responsible for establishing early Carnival aesthetics and standards remain anonymous. A handful of known artists and innovators include Charles Briton, Bror Anders Wikstrom, Jennie Wilde, and Carlotta Bonnecaze.
The Mardi Gras Scrapbook contains material relating to local New Orleans attractions and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, including invitations to balls, event programs and clippings. The entire scrapbook is digitized and available online in the Louisiana Digital Library.
The remaining visual records of early Mardi Gras artistry include printed ball invitations and dance cards, as well as Carnival Editions from local newspapers. By 1877, newspapers began printing souvenir editions for Carnival show casing tiny engravings of processional floats. These tiny renderings combined with written descriptions of floats, costumes and tableaux are often all that remains of New Orleans’ earliest parades. Carnival Editions became so popular that newspapers competed for the right to publish. Sometimes up to 30,000 copies were printed and sold on street corners. Carnival editions grew larger as processions grew grander each year. The first full color chromolithography edition was printed in 1886. It depicted the Krewe of Proteus, “Visions of Other Worlds” procession, designed by Carlotta Bonnecaze. Printed Carnival editions contain accounts of every float from 1877-1941, when discontinued. These special edition supplements have become a prized and descriptive record of early Carnival parades.
The Daily Picayune. Special Carnival issue: Feb. 17, 1896; Proteus. (New Orleans, La. : F.A. Lumsden & G.W. Kendall)
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Krewes often printed their own souvenir booklets or programs in addition to ball invitations and dance cards. Most contain artist renditions of floats, and may include brief krewe histories, theme descriptions, and local ads.
The Krewe of Venus inaugural program contains color renderings of floats, a forward, historical note, and local ads. The Krewe of Venus was the first all-female Mardi Gras krewe to parade in New Orleans. The year 1941 marked Venus’ debut to the New Orleans Carnival line-up. The entire program is digitized and available online in the Louisiana Digital Library.
Brochures and Pamphlets
Tourism brochures and pamphlets promoting Mardi Gras events are an additional source material. Publications from railroad companies and the Tourist Bureau of Louisiana often capitalized on Carnival. They also prove to be unique time capsules of Carnival seasons past. Many of these publications include brief histories concerning Carnival, traditions, and the city of New Orleans.
LSU Krewe of the Tiger
LSU even had its own krewe back in 1994. The Krewe of the Tiger had what appears to be a brief run on campus in the 1990s. This was simply a Mardi Gras ball sponsored by Residential Life and held at the Student Union. No indication of a campus procession or parade.
A collected assortment of Mardi Gras-related materials from 1875 to 1980 is available online in the Louisiana Digital Library. Digitized selections include photographs, programs, invitations, and other selected items available in several manuscript collections found in Special Collections.