Though not officially recognized as such, the first world’s fair in New Orleans was staged not in 1984 in the Warehouse District but 100 years earlier, on the site of what is now Audubon Park.
The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition ran from Dec. 16, 1884, until June 1, 1885. Some 22 countries participated. The main building constructed for the event was a structure that covered 33 acres under one roof — large enough to accommodate four Mercedes-Benz Superdomes! The Liberty Bell from Philadelphia was on display, and many of the halls featured the brand-new phenomenon of electrical lighting.
The Rex organization saluted the Cotton Centennial Exposition by issuing a commemorative coin in 1884, a precursor of the modern doubloon the krewe would unveil in 1960.
Exactly two months after the official opening of the exposition, the King of Carnival brought Mardi Gras to the fair. On Lundi Gras, Feb. 16, 1885, Rex arrived by Illinois Central Railways. Then, dressed as France’s King Charles VII, he rode a white stallion at the head of a military pageant that paraded from City Hall to the foot of Canal Street.
There, the regal entourage boarded the steamer Edward Richardson and led an 18-vessel naval parade up the Mississippi River as thousands of citizens cheered from the levees.
From the Feb. 17, 1885, Daily States:
“RECEPTION OF REX AT THE EXPOSITION
“The scene at the great Exposition yesterday was one which will pass into the annals of history written upon one separate page in the brightest colors memory can picture. Such an occasion never was before presented, and probably never will be again. The Exposition in its magnitude and beauty was of itself a sufficient attraction for the throng … but the sight of the reception of Rex, held in the spacious Music Hall, must have been one of unequaled beauty. ... Who can describe that throng, or estimate the number? For hours before, every available seat, perch, position or standing place anywhere near the immense Music Hall had been held by the lucky first-comers.”
Later that day, Rex and his subjects were entertained at the Music Hall on the exposition grounds by a band led by a young conductor named John Philip Sousa. Rex’s Fat Tuesday procession depicted “The Adventures of Ivanhoe,” but the world’s fair did not go unacknowledged, as mounted maskers carried the flags of all the participating nations.
The King of Carnival appeared as the “Ruler of Industry” and was surrounded by female figures representing agriculture, mining, navigation and trade.
The second float honored Louisiana, the host state of the exposition.
While about half of the exhibitions remained open on Mardi Gras, newspaper reports likened the grounds to a ghost town. Rex had outdrawn the world’s fair!