Mardi Gras was made to be enjoyed rather than studied, but the last quarter-century has seen more books published on the celebration than in the preceding century and a half. And that’s without taking into account magazines, photo books and individual krewe histories.
The first published study of the celebration, “Handbook of Carnival Containing Mardi Gras,” was released in 1873 by New Orleanian John Madden, just one year after the first Rex parade.
The most complete and important work ever produced is “The Mistick Krewe” (1931) by Perry Young. Young’s comprehensive record of the genesis and subsequent expansion of early Mardi Gras provides the cornerstone of all later Carnival research. Young was originally commissioned to produce a history book for the Mistick Krewe of Comus, but the work grew to include a review of all past and current Carnival organizations.
Young followed up in 1939 with “Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” Both of his books are highly sought-after collector’s items.
Of the early books, “Mardi Gras” by New Orleans novelist Robert Tallant, published in 1948, is the only one that remains in print. It’s chatty, full of gossip and just plain fun to read.
“New Orleans Masquerade” (1952) by Arthur Burton LaCour is certainly the snootiest of all the early Carnival publications. The out-of-print book updates information that Young included and is heavily illustrated with black-and-white photos.
“Mardi Gras: A Pictorial History of Carnival” (1977) by noted Louisiana historian Leonard V. Huber includes many black-and-white photos from Huber’s vast collection of images.
“Mardi Gras, A Celebration” (1981) by New Orleans Magazine editor Errol Laborde is the best illustrated history of Carnival of its day, featuring rich color photography by Mitchel Osborne and insightful text by Laborde, who would later release two other important works, “Krewe” in 2007 and “Mardi Gras — Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” in 2014.
Two scholarly studies of Mardi Gras written by non-natives, “Carnival American Style” (1990) by Samuel Kinser and “All on a Mardi Gras Day” (1995) by Reid Mitchell, are deeply informative and deeply academic. Not recommended for beginners!
Rex artistic designer and local historian Henri Schindler has contributed more to the catalog of meaningful Carnival titles than anyone else past, present and probably future. His sumptuous 1997 volume “Mardi Gras” was beautifully produced by the French publishing house Flammarion (text all in English — don’t worry). His magisterial history ends in 1950. Starting in 2000, Pelican Publishing released Schindler’s “Mardi Gras Treasures,” a quartet of volumes that covered every aspect of the art of Carnival.
“Mardi Gras in New Orleans, An Illustrated History” by yours truly, now in a revised edition (2014), is an illustrated introductory volume on Carnival history that also includes an encyclopedic reference section on several hundred Carnival organizations.