For more than 15 years Charles Briton had been largely responsible for many of the costumes, floats and trappings for Mardi Gras. However during his illness in 1884 he turned to fellow Swede Bror Anders Wikstrom for assistance. After a colourful life on the high seas, Wikstrom turned to art and on a visit to New Orleans in 1883 ran into his old friend Briton. On Briton’s death he became the designer of choice for the Comus, Momus and Rex Krewes. Though primarily an artist and teacher Wikstrom’s designs for carnival augmented his income generously and allowed him to live very comfortably and make frequent trips to Europe.
Over the years he tackled a great variety of themes from the comic to the fantastical to the historical. It was not until 1898 that he was to return to the Krewe of Proteus when he replaced the mysterious Carlotta Bonnecaze. His first parade was A Trip to Wonderland which wasn’t about Alice’s adventures but rather took the watchers to the Milky Way, a Lovers’ Hammock, A New Heaven and many other wonderous places. He was to design twelve more parades for Proteus until his death in 1909. As was normal he had submitted his designs for the 1910 Rex parade as Ash Wednesday 1909 was arriving. He then headed off to New York to work on the design for forty floats to celebrate the anniversary of Henry Hudson’s “discovery” of the river that was named after him. He had been unwell on his departure and his condition worsened. He died in April, several days after he had completed the project. His obituary lauded his accomplishments in setting up art schools and academies in his adopted home but made no mention of his work with the Mystic Krewes. As with previous designers, including Briton and Bonnecaze, his identify was one of the secrets guarded by the Krewes.
Though much ado is made of them, the persons chosen to represent Rex, Comus, Momus or Proteus had little to do other than preside over the festivities. The real work of planning, coordinating, and overseeing went to the Captains of the Krewes and their Aids. The Captain was the manager of the festivities and for many it was a year round job. Themes were chosen; designs viewed, changed, rejected or approved; trips made to the costume houses of France drawings and measurement sheets in hand; fabrics and adornments selected; shipments arranged; float and big-head constructions overseen; invitations lists for the ball vetted; ball favours, dance cards and invitations; and the list goes on. Until on the day of the Parade itself the masked – and unknown – Captain, mounted on horseback, led the parade through the streets of city. And with him as parade marshals were five or six Aids who had assisted him throughout the year and now kept the parade in good running order.
After all the planning and preparation a smooth operation on the day itself was not always guaranteed. In 1877 it was discovered that the floats that had been constructed for the infamous Hades, A Dream of Momus were too wide to go through doors of the “den” where they had been constructed. The parade was delayed as a wall was knocked down. In 1890 a battle broke out between the Captains of Comus and Proteus. Comus had not paraded on Mardi Gras night for several years and Proteus had taken over their spot. Comus returned that year and the two parades took off at the same time only to collide on Canal Street. Heated words were exchanged and blows almost flew however the brother-in-law of the Comus Captain took the bridle of the Captain of Proteus’s horse and led him to one side allowing Comus to go through. It was only after some persuading that Proteus returned to his original Lundi Gras place in the festivities.
Despite the weather the Rex Parade of 1899 made it’s way through the winter swept streets of New Orleans. I’m sure Wikstrom had not envisioned his King of Carnival sitting on a snowy bed of roses!
But the biggest concern for any Captain was the weather. Rain was always a major threat to the papier-maché floats and big heads. But rain was not the problem during Mardi Gras week in 1899. A blizzard swept out of the Rockies and deposited three inches of snow on an unprepared New Orleans. A bitterly cold wind drove the temperatures to 28ºf during the day; though Rex did parade, atop a Wikstrom designed bed of roses, on Shrove Tuesday it was said His Majesty’s smile was more set by a frozen moustache than from any sense of bonhomie.
Rex may have decided to parade the evening before, when temperatures went to 7ºf, Proteus made the wise decision to stay indoors and delay the parade until two days later – Friday February 16th. For the only time in Mardi Gras history a parade was held in the first days of Lent. It was not a success as both carnival spirit and crowds had dispersed with the coming of Ash Wednesday. And if truth be told Wikstrom’s designs – his second for Proteus – lacked the enchantment or whimsy of his best work.
So here it is February 16th and we’re back to our familiar spot on Canal Street – the weather is still not warm and frankly there’s a certain joie de vivre missing. But let’s give the parade a passing glance and see what Mr Wikstrom has created. Frankly it may be just a little to cold to watch the whole thing so we may just go indoors for a warming glass of hot punch and miss a few of the floats.
As always the parade was lead off by the Captain on horseback followed by Proteus accompanied by members of his court. (A left click will enlarge the designs for a closer look.)
In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898 patriotism was running high in the United States and Proteus choose to celebrate America with E Pluribus Unum, one of the mottoes on the Great Seal. Though never codified by law it was the de facto motto of the U. S. until the change to a less secular wording in 1956.
Uncle Sam counting the stars was followed by floats representing the District of Columbia, seventeen states* (the Carolines shared a float) and Alaska which wasn’t even a territory at that time. I have not been able to figure out what the exact criteria was for inclusion or the order in which the states were presented. Each state was represented by its motto, shield and attributes of its history, industry, flora or fauna.
It is possible that the first state is Maine as a tribute to the sunken USS Maine that had served as a powerful propaganda tool in the Spanish-American War. The ship had been in port during Mardi Gras 1897 and her officers and crew taken part in the festivities. I’m a little at a loss to explain the rather Nordic dress of the participants as the Viking settlement theories were not put forth until the 1970s.
There is perhaps a bit of irony to the modern observer in both the State motto and the design of the float representing Pennsylvania. The wheat sheaves and the lumps of coal with the state moto: Both Can’t Survive. Of course we have been told otherwise.
Though there may be witty asides at the expense of many of the States that are lost on us today there is no question about Massachusetts. The Mayflower seems bound on a storm sea for a rather forbidding Plymouth Rock. And the float is peopled by blue stockinged archetypal schoolmarms, academics, and slightly over-the-hill cupids. Obviously Wikstrom did not hold the good citizens of Boston in the highest esteem.
Given the recent Gold Rush in the Klondike that had beckoned to more than one hopeful prospector from the South perhaps it was not so strange to include Alaska as One of the Many.
We really didn’t need a reminder of the cold from that last float – there’s still some snow on the ground. We’ll have to be careful going over to the French Opera House, it’s a bit slippery underfoot – those cobble stones can be treacherous. It does seem a bit anti-climactic going to a ball during Lent but we have the invitation and the dance card and it would be a shame to waste them. Beside we spent a goodly amount on those costumes so ………
* The floats in order were: District of Columbia, Maine, Alabama, The Carolinas, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Florida, Louisiana, Rhode Island, California, Texas, and Alaska