From Twelfth Night to the start of parades, the public face of Carnival is the King Cake. Let’s run down some of the background on this wonderful tradition. Note that this is background, history. Your preferred modern king cake is up to you.
Here’s the YouTube version of the pod. As we’ve mentioned previously, I record the pod using Zoom. It’s wonderful, because Zoom generates audio and video. I like to think the audio version of the pod is more fun, but what the heck.
The Clay Monument. On 31-December-1869, the Twelfth Night Revelers invited New Orleans to see them pass by the Clay Monument on January 6, 1870. As mentioned in the pod, we’re going to have to do a full episode on the monument’s history. The reason TNR used this landmark as a gathering point was its size. The original monument dominated the three-way corner of Canal, Royal, and St. Charles Streets. Can you imagine this beast of a monument in the middle of modern Canal Street? Perfect place to tell the city, “come see us.” This is a Theodore Lilienthal photo.
Restaurant Antoine: New Orleans’ oldest restaurant, on St. Louis Street, between Royal and Bourbon. Several of the dining rooms at the restaurant are named after Carnival organizations. This is the Twelfth Night Revelers room.
King Cake Hub, located at Zony Mash Brewery, 1464 S. Broad, is a great option for one-stop king cake shopping. You’re looking to have a king cake tasting at the house, or at work? No better way to get a sampling of different styles than here.
CORRECTION: I said North Broad for the location of King Cake Hub at Zony Mash when it should be SOUTH Broad!
Drawing on paper; 7.5 x 9 inches; Comus costume design, Carnival Collection, Manuscripts Collection 900, Louisiana Research Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Mystick Krewe of Comus
The Mystick Krewe of Comus (MKC) organized in 1856. They paraded for the first time in 1857. Unlike other Carnival krewes, Comus does not parade a king. Comus is a demi-god. He is “Comus,” not “King Comus,” or “King of Comus.” While turn of the century costume designs featured Comus wearing a crown, this evolved over time. Comus now sports a cap with feather plumes, decorated in rhinestones and fur.
MKC operates as a “secret society.” They maintain closed membership roles. All members of the krewe wear masks, for parades (when they took to the streets) and for the balls. This includes Comus himself. Additionally, other krewes follow Comus in this regard. The Knights of Momus also closely guard the identity of Momus annually. Therefore, Comus, Momus, and a few other organizations present their monarch wearing a full-face mask.
Consequences of secrecy
Comus and its affiliations with luncheon clubs such as the Boston and Pickwick Clubs, became problematic for the City of New Orleans in the 1990s. From Wikipedia:
In 1991, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that required social organizations to certify publicly that they did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, in order to obtain parade permits and other public licensure. The Comus organization (along with Momus and Proteus, other 19th-century Krewes) withdrew from parading rather than racially integrating.
While Proteus returned to the streets in 2001, Comus and Momus only hold balls, in private hotels.
Comus continues their role as the senior Carnival organization in New Orleans. They hold their bal masque annually. Towards the end of the evening, Comus invites Rex, the King of Carnival, to join him at the Comus ball. This photo shows the four Carnival monarchs (Rex in gold, Comus in silver) in 2018. Comus wears a full mask to protect his identity.
Southern Railway advertising rates to Mardi Gras 1896.
Mardi Gras 1896
“Reduced Rates – Mardi Gras via Southern Ry. and Alabama Great Southern Railroad . . . Double Daily Train Service between New York, Washington, and New Orleans . . . ”
Ad for the Southern Railway, January-February, 1896. The ad features a man in a classic jester costume, along with a railway logo, “SR” bisected by an arrow.
Route and fares
Southern Railway evolved into the large system we know now over a century. In 1896, the Queen and Crescent route operated from New York City to New Orleans. The route ran over tracks owned by a number of railroads. Trains originating at New Orleans began the trip from the New Orleans and Northeastern (NONE) station at Press and Royal Streets in the Bywater. From NONE, the route traveled north to Birmingham, Chattanooga, to Atlanta. It continued north from Atlanta, to Washington and NYC. This ad shows the round-trip rates from various cities along the way.
Alabama Great Southern Railroad
The Queen and Crescent transitioned from NO&NE tracks to AGS as it traveled north. AGS later became a major component of the Southern Railway System. From Wikipedia:
So, the Queen and Crescent, Crescent Limited/Southern Crescent, Southerner, and Pelican passenger routes traveled through AGS territory and tracks. Amtrak’s Crescent continues through AGS territory. The Amtrak route is more-or-less the same as the Southern Crescent.
While later incarnations of the New Orleans to New York City route operated across the merged Southern system, equipment changed in 1896, as the route entered new territory. Since the Pullman Company operated all the sleeping cars for the railroads, booking a Pullman compartment enabled “through” service. No matter whose locomotives pulled the train, sleeping car passengers got to Carnival with no need to change seats/cars.
Designers created a red costume for Queen Zulu 1997. (cross-posted to krewehistory.info)
Queen Zulu 1997
Costume for Queen Zulu 1997. Here’s the LSM record for the watercolor:
Costume drawing for queen’s costume, Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, queen was Mercedes Antoine-Robert (wife of king), standing figure in large costume in watercolor shades of pale red, gold scrolls, wearing “Z” headpiece, signed “Colombo” l. r.
Carnival organizations use a number of methods to choose their kings, queens, and other “royalty.” For example, the School of Design’s choices for King of Carnival (Rex) are usually civic leaders. They don’t necessarily have to be a member of the organization. Endymion chooses their king via a lottery. Members desiring kingship pay a fee, their name goes in a hat, and the last name remaining in the hat as they draw them out becomes king.
Zulu holds an election for their king. Candidates for the position “campaign” by holding lavish parties and dinners for voting members. The club votes, and the man elected chooses his queen. Many Zulu kings select their wives to be their queen. That’s what happened in 1997. Reigning as Zulu the King is an expensive proposition, between the “campaign” and actual expenses for the parade and ball.
This watercolor is signed “Colombo.” I haven’t researched who this artist is. If you have more details, please comment or drop me a note. These illustrations are incredible. They offer a vision to the costumers. Those folks build on that vision, lifting it from the page.
While they don’t offer a tour every year, the tour of the LSM Carnival Collection is absolutely worth the price of admission. The tour is sponsored through the Friends of the Cabildo, so members of that organization get dibs on reservations. The curators pull out all sorts of interesting pieces from the collection that you can walk through and see up close. It’s a blast.
That’s the idea behind Krewe History dot info. This site, part of the NOLA History Guy family, is an eclectic collection of stories and images from Carnival in New Orleans. There’s no rhyme or reason to these, more just things that inspire us. If something inspires you, then tell us, and we’ll work on it.
I’ve had an idea in the back of my head for ages: create lesson plan/curriculum modules about Carnival. As a former high school history teacher, I appreciate the struggles classroom teachers have with content, reading levels, and generally catching the attention of students. Add to that the need to present material that is more diverse than the average textbook approved by the State of Texas, So, a lot of this site’s content will be, throw it up and see if it sticks in a lesson plan. If it does, fantastic. Otherwise, we’ll still have fun discussions.
If you’re an educator, you are most welcome to chime in on the project! We can always add a forum section and such.
The first image for Krewe History is from the 1926 parade of the Krewe of Proteus. Their theme that year was “The Fair God.” While Proteus now rolls out a “permanent” king’s float, the king rode a float matching the theme back in the day. That’s why the “god of the sea” rode a float featuring cacti in 1926.
Float designs in the early 20th Century began as pencil/charcoal sketches. Artists transformed those into watercolors. After approval from the Captain of the krewe, float-builders took over. They transformed concept into reality. They built the floats on wagon bases. Those wagons remain in use to this day. Well, not the originals, but the design.
Citation (yes, we’ll be sticklers for these, given the ultimate lesson plan goal): Watercolor on paper, 15 x 21 inches, Proteus float designs, Carnival Collection, Manuscripts Collection 900, Louisiana Research Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
The king wears a traditional costume. Over the years, Proteus morphed their king’s costume to match the god-of-the-sea overall theme.
Krewe History will be cross-posted to NOLA History Guy, at least for a while. Since this is a specific project, the “work” of the site will likely remain here.