The element that separates Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans from those elsewhere is the “throws” — tons of small gifts tossed to the crowd. Until 1960, throws were generic in nature, with glass beads being the most popular.
Today, the most sought-after throws are those that bear the name of the parade or, in some cases, are signature items, such as the Muses shoe, the Nyx purse, Carrollton’s shrimp boots and Iris’ sunglasses. This year Rex will toss float-specific medallion beads, plush pillows, cups and koozies.
The signature throw industry was born in 1960 with the introduction of the first doubloon. The man behind the concept was H. Alvin Sharpe (1909-1982), a self-described “Kentucky hillbilly” who moved to New Orleans in 1931.
In late 1959, Sharpe approached the leadership of the Rex organization and told them that this new aluminum throw was safe and educational and would be immensely popular. Apparently not convinced that the innovation would last, Rex decided not to imprint a date on the first doubloons in 1960. Some 80,000 plain aluminum and 3,000 gold anodized doubloons were struck.
Initial reaction to the new throw was mixed, but by the end of the decade every krewe had joined the doubloon-minting fraternity. The aluminum coins were hailed as the perfect throw — an inexpensive keepsake that featured the krewe’s emblem and the theme and date of the parade.
Soon doubloon collecting became almost an obsession with many locals. Price guides were published, and no less than a dozen doubloon shops popped up around town as collectors tried to fill their binders with complete sets from each parade. After each Mardi Gras, doubloon swaps were held all over town.
Sharpe enjoyed a rich and adventuresome life. He was a historian-philosopher, worked as a newspaper reporter and published two volumes of his poetry. As an inventor, he developed a liquid glass that made cypress tabletops possible.
Sharpe, the adventurer, was a merchant seaman who sailed the oceans of the world for 15 years, prospected for uranium out West and mined for gold in Australia. As a craftsman, he worked as a jeweler, wood engraver, metalist, sculptor, artist and finally a master of the lost art of intaglio die cutting (a painstaking method of carving in reverse into a steel die).
Sharpe’s New Orleans sketches are sought after when they show up at auctions. The best example of his artistic skill can be found in eight ceiling murals he created for the New Orleans Board of Trade building.
In 1979 he published a collection of his writings and poetry titled "Collective Meditations."
For all his skills and international fame, Sharpe was an unassuming man who was not terribly interested in money or fame. He didn't bother to catalog the doubloons he produced, but each bears his initials, H.A.S.
Sharpe insisted that doubloon-making was an art form with immense historical value. The doors to his tiny workshop were always open to young artists, aspiring journalists and anyone else who just wanted to visit.
Email Arthur Hardy at email@example.com.