For today’s Mardi Gras revelers, the doubloon seems as commonplace as beads or a king cake. But prior to 1960, "doubloons" meant historic gold loaded onto Spanish galleons, long ago.
“It was an entrepreneur named H. Alvin Sharpe who invented the Mardi Gras doubloon,” said Carnival aficionado Arthur Hardy. “He brought his idea to the Captain of Rex in 1959 and started an entire industry.”
Sharpe, an artist who had an expertise in machinery, had perfected the metal die, which serves as a template on which to strike the blank doubloon with customized designs.
“The meeting between Sharpe and 1959 Rex Captain Darwin Schriever Fenner, then a partner at the prestigious investment firm of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, was dramatic,” said Dr. Stephen Hales, who reigned as Rex in 2017 and serves as the organization's historian.
“Sharpe entered Fenner’s office,” said Hales, “threw a handful of blank doubloons across his desk and proclaimed the decorated coin would change Carnival forever.”
Fenner was sold, but since the rest of the Rex organization was not immediately on board, Fenner underwrote the initial cost for the order of 80,000 doubloons. Blaine Kern, of Mardi Gras World, then a good friend of Fenner’s, sent them to Ohio to be struck.
“It was my father, back in 1964, who asked why doubloons for New Orleans’ own Mardi Gras were being made out of state,” said Peter Barr, president of New Orleans Mint.
The New Orleans Mint, not to be confused with the U.S. Mint here in New Orleans, was a machine shop making gears and sprockets. John Barr, its then-president, enlisted a partner and became the local doubloon-maker.
“My dad went to his friend Bill Cox at The American Can Company; they partnered to buy the specific equipment needed to make doubloons and started what was the original New Orleans doubloon manufacturing center, Barco Mint," said son Peter Barr.
By 1968, Barco Mint was ready to go, soliciting the Carnival clubs as the only local entity capable of making doubloons. It was the first year of Bacchus. Rex switched its orders to the local shop, and other krewes quickly followed.
“There were fears in the beginning from the krewes that their themes would get out if the doubloons were produced locally,” explained Peter Barr. “It’s all very secretive, and no one wants the mystery revealed prematurely. However, as time went on, more and more organizations decided that keeping the money and jobs here in New Orleans was more important. ... And of course, we were sworn to secrecy.”
Barco Mint continued to pick up steam, gathering more clubs ordering specialized doubloons every season. Then, a fire hit the factory in 1996.
“My father was getting up in years, and his partner Bill Cox was retiring,” recounted Peter Barr. “They were going to shut the place down, but my brother and I decided to rebuild, and we changed the name to New Orleans Mint.”
Today, the New Orleans Mint cranks out custom doubloons for the krewes of Carnival in New Orleans, the surrounding parishes, Mississippi and some organizations which may come as a surprise.
“People don’t realize we’ve worked for NASA, doing commemorative doubloon runs for many of the space shuttles,” said 35-year New Orleans Mint sales manager Pat Feeney. “And before filming of the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” we got an order for 250,000 doubloons." The coins were featured in a scene in which a treasure chest lid was lifted to reveal dazzling gold.
Tinting of doubloons was originally done at the New Orleans Mint, but post-fire, the EPA ruled that the toxic chemicals needed for the anodizing process could no longer be used within city limits. So the coins are now struck in New Orleans but sent out of state for color.
“There are 15 main colors, but we can design specialty colors like the champagne-rose which was run for the doubloons we struck for Pete Fountain’s funeral,” said Feeney.
Over the years, some krewes have taken their orders to China for lower prices, but many have since returned.
“There are no guarantees when you’re ordering half a world away,” said Feeney. “The freight prices have become very high, and the unexpected is always a possibility. Last year, the truckers in Los Angeles went on strike. Containers of doubloons hitting the Port of Los Angeles couldn’t be unloaded, so everything sat on the docks while Mardi Gras rolled on. We have some of the same loyal krewes since we began 50 years ago. Rex, Bacchus and Argus have been with us from the beginning.”
This year, the celebrity-themed Bacchus has ordered a commemorative plaque for its 50th anniversary, containing the 50 different celebrity coins tossed since the parade first rolled.
For the “doubloonatics” in the city, who collect rare doubloon mementos, the limited edition plaque will undoubtedly become the next collector’s item.
“You know, we’ve become a bit jaded here in New Orleans,” said Hardy. “If a float throw doesn’t sing and make us breakfast, we’re not interested. But, as beads and cups have given way to krewe-specific plush toys, the Carnival doubloon is now making a comeback — a testament to an item that’s distinctly New Orleans.”