The History of Mardi Gras

By Jessica Azar

What do you think of when someone says “Mardi Gras?” Images of bedecked costume revelers, parties, and parades filled with purple, green, and gold come to mind for most folks.  And outside of the South, most automatically think of New Orleans. Did you know that New Orleans isn’t the only Mardi Gras Mecca? And that a very large faction of Southerners will even tell you that New Orleans wasn’t even a city when Mardi Gras was born in Mobile, Alabama? Well, I’m telling you the truth! One of the greatest Southern debates, (outside of college football rivalries, of course) revolves around the true origin of the annual larger than life celebration, and when my curiosity gets the better of me it leads to researching. Let’s examine what history says about the evolution of Mardi Gras.

Being that the area around New Orleans (or N’awlins as a lot of us say around here) was settled by the French who were predominantly Catholic, they brought with them the traditions of celebrating Carnival. The festival of Carnival, meaning “farewell to the flesh” in Latin, encouraged Catholics to make merry and enjoy more earthly pleasures before the penitential, self-denying period of Lent. Naturally those that settled the American Gulf Coast continued to enjoy Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday in the new settlement (who would give up the fun before the denial? Not this girl!). Masked Balls and Twelfth Night revelry, by where a “King and Queen” of the evening were selected randomly, and over-indulgence in decadent foods dominated the traditions of this time before the development of modern Mardi Gras.

Now, if you noticed, I did NOT mention parades, beads, krewes with secret memberships, and many of the other things we associate with the Mardi Gras celebrations of today. The formation of these components began on the day after Christmas, 1831 in Mobile, Alabama (Not New Orleans!)  when a young cotton broken by the name of Michael Krafft was making his way home in the dark of the night. Being in jolly spirits after an evening of fun, he took a rake and cowbells from a hardware store where he had sat down to rest for a moment. After tying the cowbells to the rake, he proceeded to merrily jangle and ring the bells as he walked through the streets which attracted attention from other young men. They joined him as a crowd and the merriment escalated. Someone asked him “What society is this?” to which Krafft replied “This? This is the Cowbellion de Rakin society.”

The incident was reported in the newspaper, and people openly speculated whether the group would gather again on the New Year’s Eve of that year. Around 50 men gathered at a coffeehouse that evening, got in line to march the streets of Mobile around 9 p.m., and the first krewe was born. The mayor sent a messenger requesting the group come to his home to eat, which they did in addition to the  stopping by other residences to celebrate the New Year. The next year a notice was published in the newspaper calling the Cowbellions together again to march on New Year’s Eve at an appointed place and time, giving birth to a tradition. On the third year of their group’s existence, the Cowbellions wore masks with fancy costumes with most marching on foot and some riding horses. The Society included six enormous parade floats in their annual procession just a few short years after adding costumes, which were said to be the first of their kind in America. The Cowbellions became America’s first mystic society designed specifically for throwing parades and elaborate parties. Two other groups were formed in response to the Cowbellions, the Strikers and T.D.S..

After six Cowbellion members from Mobile (later called the “Mobile Six”) moved to New Orleans, they decided to form the Mystick Krewe of Comus which hosted the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, breathing life back into the holiday there. Several years later in 1866, the soon-to-be legendary Joseph Cain and member of a Mobile Fire Company was invited to the New Orleans Fire Department Parade by one of the New Orleans Fire Companies, Perserverance. As their guest he was included in their Mardi Gras parade the following day, riding the Perseverance Fire Company’s special car in his Mardi Gras costume. After having such a fabulous time, Cain decided that Mobile MUST have a Mardi Gras celebration as well and formed the L.C. (Lost Cause) Minstrels to stage the first parade. With the formation of the L.C.s, Joe Cain invented the character of the Native American chief, Slacabamarinico who wore a feathered headdress, costume, and road on a coal wagon. The L.C.s following behind him making a hilarious ruckus with musical instruments, to the delight of the crowds watching. Over time, more krewes and mystic societies were formed which lead to the growth of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration. Some of the Cowbellions, carried on the parading tradition on New Year’s Eve, joined other mystic societies and also participated in Mardi Gras parades. Sadly, as the Cowbellions grew older and died, the parading celebration on New Year’s Eve faded away in the 1880’s, leaving Mardi Gras the premiere season for mystic festivities. Can you imagine how much fun it would’ve been to enjoy both the New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras celebrations during the 1870’s when they coexisted? That sounds like my idea of a good time.

After looking at all of the rich history we’ve gone through, it’s obvious that modern Mardi Gras would not exist without marriage of Mobile’s and New Orleans’ influences. While New Orleans originally celebrated Carnival more extensively, Mobile can definitely claim the creation of the parading society and Krewes . When the Mobile Six moved to New Orleans and brought the Cowbellion’s  mystic traditions with them, they planted them into the nearly non-existent Mardi Gras observed there at that time. Mobilian Joe Cain’s inclusion in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade led him to spread Mobile’s already-active parading culture to  Mardi Gras, in addition to continuing the New Year’s Eve celebrations and parades enjoyed there.

Love and Marriage, Peanut Butter and Jelly, RC Colas and Moon Pies, New Orleans Mardi Gras and Mobile Mardi Gras, you can’t have one without the other.