Where is Mardi Gras Point? When was New Orleans' first recorded Carnival procession? Why was masking once forbidden in the city? When was the first gay Carnival krewe founded?
Get answers to these questions and more at The Historic New Orleans Collection now through March 1, when the museum's history galleries are filled with artifacts, maps, portraits and ephemera for “Rite, Rituals and Revelry: The History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” Guided tours of the exhibit are offered Tuesday through Sunday at 11 a.m. and last about an hour; go to hnoc.org for details and tickets.
Malinda Blevins, who moved to New Orleans from Virginia five years ago, wasted no time becoming an interpretation assistant, or docent, for the tour.
“No matter what you think you know about Carnival, there will be surprises,” she said. “And if you are a visitor to town, the tour will be a real eye opener.”
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According to Blevins, Mardi Gras Point got its name in the early 1700s when the LeMoyne brothers (Iberville and Bienville), after traveling about eight miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi, realized it was Mardi Gras.
“So they simply pulled over and toasted the occasion!” she said. “From then on, the spot has been known as Mardi Gras Point, and the Rex organization even installed a marker on the West Bank across from it to mark the site. We have maps in the exhibit that show the exact location.”
A 2004 purchase by the Collection helped researchers determine when the first Mardi Gras procession, of sorts, took place.
“The Collection bought the diaries of Marc-Antoine Caillot at auction in 2004, not knowing exactly what was in them,” Blevins said. “But because he was a clerk with the Company of the Indies, there was bound to be something of interest. As it turns out, Caillot describes a drunken procession on Mardi Gras in 1727 that traveled from the Vieux Carre along Bayou Road to Bayou St. John, where he and his friends crashed a wedding. And get this: Caillot and his friends were all costumed as women.”
It wasn’t much of a parade compared to what the superkrewes stage today, but it was a beginning.
“With each administration — French, then Spanish, then American — the citizens of New Orleans have worried that the new people in charge would somehow disrupt their Carnival traditions,” Blevins said. “It was a major concern of the French when they learned the colony had been traded to the Spanish in the 1760s. But the Spanish were Catholic, too, so the tradition continued with one exception.”
Having already experienced a revolt that resulted in the first Spanish governor retreating to his ship and heading back to Spain, the new rulers wanted to be sure there would not be another.
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“So they forbade masks,” Blevins said. “That way, the Spanish could identify the revelers and act quickly in case of another rebellion.”
The exhibit and tour also cover the founding of Comus and Rex, and how the ball tradition evolved.
Caillot and his buddies may have dressed in drag back in 1727, but it would be more than 200 years before a gay Carnival krewe would be founded.
“The first was the krewe of Yuga, and it was founded in 1958,“ Blevins said. “But in 1962, its ball was raided by the police and a lot of members went to jail. It was devastating for them because back then, no one was out.”
The ball was held in Metairie and so it was the Jefferson Parish police who took the attendees to jail. Almost 100 names of those arrested were published in the newspaper. Many of those arrested discovered they no longer had jobs upon their release, Blevins said.
Centuries before the advent of fluorescent green plastic “hand grenade” receptacles, New Orleanians discarded different debris in the French Quarter.