posted on February 12, 2018 by Ana Brazil

How to survive a killer Mardi Gras, circa 1889

Need to know how to survive this year’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans? Good news! Google’s got you covered! Now you have no excuse because you know how to find a restroom, catch a doubloon without getting your fingers stomped, and—most importantly—stay out of jail.

But suppose your New Orleans time machine took you back to Tuesday March 5, 1889…to a truly Gilded Age Mardi Gras? Good news again! Every New Orleans newspaper and guidebook printed instructions on exactly how to behave during the day and night festivities.

Rex Parade on Canal Street, late 19th century

First of all, you had to understand that Rex—the acknowledged King of Carnival—ruled the day. From the moment that Rex’s royal flotilla of 26 steamboats landed at the foot of Canal Street, you became his loyal subject.

Rex’s wishes were your command and command he did!

During the parade, Rex required that:

  • All malicious mischief upon the part of subjects—such as throwing flour—is…forbidden under the severest displeasure.
  • All houses and galleries along the route of the different processions are ordered to be decorated under the penalty of the King’s displeasure.
  • All places of business, both public and private, are hereby ordered to be closed, and all traffic suspended throughout the entire city.
  • At 6 o’clock p.m. a sunset salute will be fired by H. M.’s Artillery, when all loyal subjects will unmask and disperse, making way for his Majesty’s cousin, “Proteus” who, with his “Krewe” will appear after nightfall.

After the parade, Rex and his court celebrated at a reception and ball at the Imperial Palace. From his elegant throne, Rex commanded that:

  • FULL EVENING DRESS IS ABSOLUTELY required from all guests.
  • Gentlemen with colored suits or overcoats and ladies with hats or bonnets WILL UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES BE ADMITTED.
  • Invitations are PURELY PERSONAL, and no transfer will be recognized.
  • Household troops will see that these orders are rigidly carried out.

Rex was not alone in laying down the law during Mardi Gras. At the Krewe of Proteus reception at the Opera House, attendees were instructed to abide by these regulations:

  • Guests are specifically warned that to secure admission to the Opera House they must present their INVITATION CARDS.
  • Gentlemen will not be allowed to occupy seats until all ladies are provided for, and will not be permitted to obstruct the aisles.
  • Ladies with bonnets or not in full dress will be conducted to the upper tiers and will not be allowed on the dancing platform.
  • Gentlemen are requested not to approach the dancing platform until the termination of the FOURTH DANCE by the maskers

Times-Picayune advertisement

Most of these pronouncements insured the desired revelry:

“The streets are thronged all day and far into the night by groups of merry faces…. No where in the world are such magnificent street parades given, or such elegant balls….Banners flaunted their gay colors in the air above the mass of spectators assembled on galleries, balconies, stands and other posts of observation.”

Sounds like the King had everything covered, right?

Not quite. This was Gilded Age New Orleans after all, so there was still mayhem galore. The week’s newspapers reported shootings, stabbings, and snatchings, but it does look like Mardi Gras 1889 escaped the taint of murder. And so, by obeying Rex’s rules and regulations, thousands of citizens and visitors survived a killer Mardi Gras.

Ana Brazil

Ana Brazil

A native of California, Ana Brazil lived in the south for many years. She earned her MA in American history from Florida State University and traveled her way through Mississippi as an architectural historian. Ana loves fried mullet, Greek Revival colonnades, and Miss Welty’s garden. She has a weakness for almost all things New Orleans. (Although she’s not sure just how it happened…but she favors bluegrass over jazz.) The Fanny Newcomb stories celebrate the tenacity, intelligence, and wisdom of the dozens of courageous and outrageous southern women that Ana is proud to call friends. Although Ana, her husband, and their dog Traveller live in the beautiful Oakland foothills, she is forever drawn to the lush mystique of New Orleans, where Fanny Newcomb and her friends are ever prepared to seek a certain justice.

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2 thoughts on “How to survive a killer Mardi Gras, circa 1889”

  1. Great column. I live in Mobile, which now claims the FIRST Mardi Gras, as you probably know. Reading these rules reminded me of the elegance that was once part of Mardi Gras. Thanks for the time travel history!

    1. Ana Brazil says:

      Thanks, Carolyn! Researching 1889 Mardi Gras was a lot of fun. FYI, all of the New Orleans newspapers reported on the festivities in Mobile and other coastal cities.

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