Film History Essentials: Mardi Gras Carnival (1898)

What it’s about:

Several floats from that year’s Rex Parade, a long-standing and famous New Orleans Mardi Gras event, pass by the camera as large crowds enjoy the spectacle.

Why it’s essential:

On 22 February 1898, the American Mutoscope Company had a camera set up at Gallier Hall, directly across from Lafayette Square in the heart of New Orleans. Rolling down St Charles Avenue between these two landmarks was the Rex Parade, part of one of the city’s oldest and most celebrated traditions: Carnival on Mardi Gras. Although Mardi Gras revelry had been a part of New Orleans culture since the city’s founding, Rex was one of several Carnival “Krewes” formed throughout the mid-1800s in an effort to bring some order and planning to the formerly chaotic Carnival celebrations.

The Grand Duke (right) poses with General Custer (left) after a buffalo hunt organized by Buffalo Bill in January 1872

The oldest of these organizations, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded in 1856, but they had typically organized a nighttime parade. Rex was founded in 1872 in order to plan a daytime parade. The direct impetus for this was supposedly an impending visit by Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia (see right), who was nearing the end of a three-month goodwill tour of the United States on behalf of his father, Emperor Alexander II. However, foremost in the minds of the founders, most of whom were local businessmen, was to create an attraction that would fuel tourism and commerce, and help boost the city’s post-Civil War economic recovery.

Many of the Rex traditions were established in 1872, but in 1873 the parade evolved even further to include a guiding theme and a series of elaborate floats supporting that theme. Many of these traditions now have 150 years of history behind them. However, in 1898 it was only the silver anniversary of the Rex Parade (the event had existed for 26 years, but it was the 25th parade, as the 1875 parade was cancelled due to political unrest). The theme that year was “Harvest Queens,” and each float is dedicated to an agricultural product. The floats are preceded by a person holding a sign shaped like a silver bell with the title for each float. Based on the outline of the parade published in the Carnival Edition of The Picayune (see below), the footage seems to have been edited together out of order.

Regarding editing: Notice that there are several points where the footage appears to “jump.” This is not due to anything missing from the film. Rather, early cameras were often operated by manually turning a crank that pulled the film past the shutter. If nothing “film-worthy” was taking place (in this case, the large, empty gaps between the slowly-moving parade floats), the cameraman would simply stop cranking, beginning again when there was something worth capturing. In addition, part of the film was apparently spliced together incorrectly at some point, as it begins near the end of the parade, then about halfway through it jumps back to the parade’s beginning.

The first float that appears is float 14 in the official parade order. It is decorated with birds and red berries that are likely currants. A long gap follows this float, and a time jump brings float 15 to the center of the screen. This float features a boat-like vessel with a team of what appear to be peacocks drawing it, and it is devoted to pineapples. Further back, float 16 is just visible. From the program, we know this is the tomato float, but here the footage skips ahead again.

Floats 17 and 18 are decorated to represent coffee and tea, respectively, and the bell-shaped sign preceding the tea float is the only one that is really legible. These two floats are also clearly meant to represent the specific cultures associated with those exports: Arabian culture for coffee, Chinese culture for tea. Both cultures are represented via very broad stereotypes. These two floats suggests that some of the earlier floats may also have been meant to depict certain cultures as well, though what those are is a bit more obscure. The final float in the parade, featuring strawberries, is just visible behind the “tea” float.

At this point, the film cuts to the very beginning of the parade, which is led by “Le Boeuf Gras” or “the fatted ox” atop a float of its own. Boeuf gras is a very old Mardi Gras tradition, representing the last meat that will be consumed before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, the following day. This was actually one of the last times that a live ox was featured in the Rex Parade. A proclamation was issued in 1900 declaring that a live ox would no longer be a part of the parade, suggesting that its inclusion was out of step with modern sensibilities and aesthetics. In 1959, le boeuf gras returned to the parade in papier-mâché form, and this tradition has continued through today.

After this comes the first official float of the parade, bearing that year’s Rex, the King of the Carnival. Rex is chosen in secret each year, and then publicly announced the day before Mardi Gras. It is considered an enormous honor, and comes with a variety of ceremonial duties throughout the day, culminating in presiding over a carnival ball that night. In 1898, the chosen Rex was Charles A. Farwell II (see right), owner of one of the wealthiest sugar plantations in the southern United States, and head of one of the largest sugar companies in the state. Just coming into view as the film ends is the parade’s second float, titled “Silver Anniversary of Rex.”

Mardi Gras Carnival was one of the first subjects filmed by Frederick S. Armitage, though he would go on to film hundreds more. Thanks to American Mutoscope Company records, the existence of the film was known, but the footage itself was believed lost for many years by Rex and Carnival historians anxious to locate it. Then, in 2022, a print was discovered in the holdings of the Eye Filmmuseum, a Dutch film archive that is notable for its film preservation and restoration work, and particularly for an ongoing project to make much of its collection freely available online. The film was immediately nominated for the National Film Registry, and was added to the list with that year’s group of inductees a few months later.

Why you should see it:

Audiences familiar with modern-day Mardi Gras festivities will immediately notice how quiet and orderly the watching crowds are. They’re just observing the parade pass by, and no one seems to be moving or even cheering. No police presence is required to hold the crowds back. Most of the people involved in the parade are wearing uniforms or costumes, and many are masked, but the crowds appear to be dressed in ordinary street clothing. It’s both a marked contrast and a fascinating document of what a celebration that still happens annually was like some 125 years ago.

But even more important is how the film stands as a reminder of a stark historical reality that is hidden in plain sight within it. Whatever the appearances of any individuals in the parade might suggest, everyone participating in it is definitely white. Like every other 19th-century New Orleans Carnival Krewe, Rex’s membership was restricted to people of European ancestry. Rex was closely associated with The Boston Club, a segregated gentleman’s club founded in 1841, and the King of Carnival was typically selected from among the club’s members.

The White League clasps hands with the KKK over an image of a terrorized black family (Harper’s Weekly, October 1874)

The Boston Club’s elite private clubhouse was the site of an 1874 meeting by leadership of the White League, a white supremacist organization that emerged in Louisiana after the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan by the federal government. The purpose of the meeting was to plan a takeover of the state and city governments, then led by a democratically-elected coalition of Republicans, both white and black. The White League’s stated goals were as follows:

[H]aving solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race […] to unite with us against that supreme danger. A league of whites is the inevitable result of that formidable, oath-bound, and blindly obedient league of the blacks, which, under the command of the most cunning and unscrupulous negroes in the State, may at any moment plunge us into a war of races. […] It is with some hope that a timely and proclaimed union of the whites as a race, and their efficient preparation for any emergency, may arrest the threatened horrors of social war, and teach the blacks to beware of further insolence and aggression, that we call upon the men of our race to leave in abeyance all lesser considerations; to forget all differences of opinions and all race prejudices of the past, and with no object in view but the common good of both races, to unite with us in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man’s government in the city and the State.

Louisiana White League Platform (1874)

On the afternoon of 14 September, a force of over 8000 white men attacked a much smaller force composed of black members of the state militia and the integrated Metropolitan Police. The militia and police were commanded by ex-Confederate general James Longstreet, and the brief clash came to be known as the Battle of Liberty Place. The larger force soon prevailed and took control of much of the downtown area, including the city hall building that was located directly behind Armitage when he filmed Mardi Gras Carnival a few decades later. If you look to the extreme left of the frame, you can nearly make out where the parade route crosses Poydras Street less than a block down. In 1874, the forces of the White League constructed a barricade there out of streetcars, extending it for the few blocks down to the Mississippi River, and hunkered down to await a response to their appeal for recognition from President Grant.

Columbia, wielding a sword of Constitutional Law, protects a black man from a mob of White League ex-Confederates. (Note the caption at the bottom of the image.)

Grant did not look kindly upon this insurrection, and Federal troops arrived three days later to restore the lawfully-elected government and disperse the rebels, who nevertheless faced no further consequences for their actions. This, incidentally, was the “political unrest” that resulted in the cancellation of the 1875 Rex Parade. This victory of justice and the rule of law was relatively short-lived. The hotly-contested presidential election of 1876 was resolved with the Compromise of 1877, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency in exchange for his promise to withdraw the last Federal troops from the Southern states, ending Reconstruction.

The white supremacists, in New Orleans and across the South, swept African Americans and their political allies from elected office, marking the beginning of nearly a century of disenfranchisement and worse for the Southern black population and other minorities. In 1891, veterans of the White League uprising led an angry mob in a mass lynching of 11 Italian immigrants who had been acquitted of murdering the New Orleans chief of police. The enthusiasm surrounding this renewed surge of racial fervor boosted long-dormant plans to erect a monument commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place with a 35-foot white obelisk in the median on Canal Street, a quarter of a mile back down St. Charles Avenue from where the parade was filmed in 1898.

Among all of the participants passing by in the parade, as well as the crowds lining both sides of the street, there is one identifiable black face in Mardi Gras Carnival. An African American man is visible from about the chest up in the very bottom left corner of the frame. His hat, stylishly tilted to the left, makes the right side of his face easily visible to the camera. He is there for the entirety of the parade, quietly watching alongside the white spectators. His age isn’t clear, though he could be quite young. Is he a resident, or simply a visitor? What does he think of what he sees? What does he remember, or what has he heard, about the recent history of this city and this state?

Whatever he knows of this past, and of the ongoing racial violence continuing across the region, he could not yet know that less than nine months after this parade, white supremacists would carry out a coup in Wilmington, North Carolina. They would overthrow one of the last bi-racial Republican governments that still existed in the South, murdering perhaps as many as 300 African Americans and chasing out thousands more from the formerly black-majority city. The victims’ appeals to Republican President McKinley for help would fall on deaf ears. He would reply that he could not respond without a request for help from the state’s governor, who of course would make no such request.

Local newspapers reported the event as a race riot caused by the black population. The true message reached the entire region loud and clear: White supremacy could once again stand uncontested as the guiding force of Southern law for generations to come. In 1932, the following inscription was added to the Liberty Place Monument (see left):

McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

Sociologist and historian James Loewen called it “the most overt monument to white supremacy in the United States,” and although it was briefly removed in 1989, it was put up again in a less prominent location in the city, where it remained for many more years. It was finally removed permanently, amid great controversy, in 2017.

In 1991, New Orleans passed an ordinance requiring Carnival Krewes to prove they were not segregated in order to obtain a license to parade in the city. Of the major “old line” 19th-century Krewes, the Mistick Crewe of Comus, the Knights of Momus, and the Krewe of Proteus all withdrew from parading rather than comply. Only Rex chose to meet the conditions of the ordinance and continue, although it ended many of its traditional associations with The Boston Club in order to do so. The ordnance was later ruled unconstitutional, and Proteus returned to parading in 2000. The other old line Krewes have not paraded since. As of 2023, the Boston Club is still a segregated organization.


~ by Jared on March 15, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Mardi Gras Carnival (1898)”

  1. […] River into the Gulf, and river traffic was disrupted by freeze conditions all along its length. The Rex parade was delayed in New Orleans in the face of the coldest-ever temperatures on Mardi […]


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