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When did Mardi Gras start?

Happy Mardi Gras! Or, in case you don't speak French, happy Fat Tuesday (finally, back to a doodle with some bright colors)! This was a pretty easy decision for a Daily Doodle. Lots of color and rich in history.

Mardi Gras can be traced back to medieval Europe in the 17th century, going through Rome and Venice before making it's way to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of "Boeuf Gras," (or fattened calf in English), followed France to the colonies.

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, arrived at a piece of land 60 miles south of New Orleans on the eve of Mardi Gras and named it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" in honor of the festive holiday. Bienville also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (which is now Mobile, Alabama) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America's very first Mardi Gras.

Of course, like most older traditions, this is up for some debate. Some point to 1699 as year the "first" American Mardi Gras was held, claiming the day the explorers landed about 60 miles south of present-day New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, on the eve of the holiday and naming the point "Pointe du Mardi Gras" was indeed celebrating the festivity.

New Orleans, the king/queen of present day Mardi Gras, was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades of today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana's governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls, which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or "flambeaux," lit the way for the krewe's members and provided each event an exciting air of romance and festivity.

Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance, even printing "Carnival Edition" lithographs of parades' fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course - themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession). At first, these reproductions were small, and details could not be clearly seen. But beginning in 1886 with Proteus' parade "Visions of Other Worlds," these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color, doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton and B.A. Wikstrom. Each of these designers' work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache' artist Georges Soulie', who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of the Carnival's floats and processional outfits.

1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff's family colors of purple, green and gold as Carnival's official colors. Purple stands for justice; gold for power; and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival's improbable anthem, "If Ever I Cease to Love," was cemented, due in part to the Duke's fondness for the tune.

The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France, culminating with Comus' magnificent "The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of Species," in which exotic paper-mache' animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin's theory and local officials, including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the "Mardi Gras Act," making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it still is.

Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies. Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by their members, New Orleanians call it the "Greatest Free Show on Earth!"

I have never been to a Mardi Gras festival, carnival, or celebration, have you? Seems like fun, but also a little too wild maybe...

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