I Love a Parade – III

February 13, 1899 – New Orleans

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.

Mangrove Swamp Wikstrom 1902
Mangrove Swamp – 1902
Brors Anders Wikstrom was inspired by his time at sea and his surroundings in Louisiana.

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.

The Aids were parade marshals who rode the length of the route on horseback.  For E Pluribus Unum in 1899 Wikstrom gave them the air of French cavaliers.

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

On this day in 1951: The Canadian Army enters combat in the Korean War.

I Love A Parade – II

February 16, 1896 – New Orleans

Looking at many of the designs it is difficult to believe that New Orleans Mardi Gras Parades were exclusive to men during much of the Golden Age.  The Krewes were secretive “men only” organizations such that even the fair Dido in Briton’s The Aeneid would have been a mustachioed if not bearded gentleman.  In 1880 the Krew of Momus took as their theme A Dream of Fair Women which led one society columnist to record her inability to suspend disbelieve.  Catherine Cole wryly noted:  … I confess my imagination was not vivid enough to fancy ‘fair women’ in the lot of gorgeously apparelled brawny men who hid their beards and moustaches behind false faces. Adieu! It was a perfect nightmare!  

Though women were working behind the scenes from the beginning it was not until 1922 that the all-female Krewe of Iris held a tableaux ball.  However they didn’t parade until 1959.  That honour fell to the Krewe of Venus who held the first all-female parade in 1941.  Their theme was Goddesses and the display was worthy of the subject and the importance of the event.

The Krewe of Venus threw doubloons honour various notable women. This is from 1962 – History’s Sovereign Queens

But it wasn’t all glitter and gorgeous throws. To begin with it rained; then they were subject to taunts and catcalls from crowds along the way. But even worse they became the targets for organized gangs that threw rotten vegetables and eggs. Despite the chauvinistic naysayers the Krewe continued to parade every year until they disbanded in 1992. They were the torchbearers for the many female Krewes and marchers that were to follow.

But I digress: from 1885 to 1896 the spectacular floats of the Krewe of Proteus may have been manned (sorry) by gorgeously costumed men however those floats and frocks were created by a woman:  Carlotta Bonnecaze.

Carlotta Bonnecaze, the first woman to design for a Mardi Gras Krewe, captured the Myths and Worships of China in 1885.

Little is known about Carlotta Bonnecaze except that she was a Creole and the first woman to designed a parade and tableaux ball.  There is an indication that she was the daughter of an Alexander Bonnecaze who was a member of Proteus.  Her only known designs were for that Krewe and because of the secrecy surrounding designers her work went unrecognized until 1922 when a gift to the Louisiana State Museum of preliminary sketches brought her name to light.  They revealed the meticulous detail that went into the work in the fanciful designs she created.

Here’s the finished design for The Festival of Lanterns float from her first parade in 1885: Myths and Worships of China. Roll the mouse over the finished design to see her first thoughts.

Over the thirteen years Bonnecaze designed for Proteus she looked to the gods and legends of China, India, Scandinavia, Persia, Arabia, and Europe of the Middle Ages for her themes.  The Stars were her inspiration for Visions of Other Words which was deemed one of her finest displays.  But she was also capable of a touch of whimsy dressing Krewe members as peas, corn, and other vegetables and surrounding them with sixteen feet high flora and fauna in A Dream of the Vegetable Kingdom in 1892.  But it was in 1896 that she combined the whimsical and her flair for the eccentric in Dumb Society.  She may have lacked the stiletto satire of Briton but for all their charm her anthropomorphic comments on social mores of the time had a certain bite.

So once again this we take our places on that balcony overlooking the broad avenue that is Canal Street and watch the passing parade. (A right click will enlarge each picture for a closer look.)

The numbering of the floats on Carlotta Bennecaze’s design does not include the banner float – a proud American Eagle bearing the legend of the theme; I’ll use the larger number when remarking on a particular float.

Number 4 is a rather pointed trial scene: the fox would seem to be the outsider in a courtroom filled with birds listening to the Mother Hen pleading her case.  And it would appear that Justice overlooking the proceedings is either a donkey (the Democrats?) or just an ass!

Rather amusingly the oblivious mice cavort under the “guardian” gaze of two very attentive cats – lunchtime on Float 8?  And that avian “glee club” that follows on Float 9  includes an endearing little chick cradled in an egg.

Washington is still a source of amusement – President Grover Cleveland’s passion for fishing is guyed – howbeit gently in Presidential Sporting (#!)) .  And Float 13 takes a poke at ladies of fashion peacocking it around town, ignoring the fact that there is nothing plainer than a peahen.  And what could be more elegant than an elephant taking afternoon tea (#14) served by a donkey in full livery?

My definite favourite is #15 the “Last Rites”: Cock Robin, his breast pierced by that infamous arrow, is laid to rest by an officiating sparrow as a bull (?) tolls the death knell on a nearby bluebell.

Bonnecaze designed 110 costumes and masks for the spectacle.  Everything from an alligator in a tail coat to that brace of very fashionable peacocks to a weevil in an equally fashionable hobble-skirt.  Though by 1873 the floats and paper-maché  heads  were being made in New Orleans many of the costumes were still being made overseas.  Designs and measurements would be sent to well-known costume houses in France and on more than one occasion there were concerns about delivery as Mardi Gras drew near.


Carlotta Bonnecaze was to design only one more Mardi Gras for the Krewe of Proteus.  On March 1 1897 her vision of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso processed down Canal Street.  As the flambeaux illuminating Orlando’s final combat faded from sight her name disappeared from Mardi Gras history until the serendipitous discover in 1922.  Carlotta Bonnecaze regained her rightful place amongst the creators of the Golden Age.


As noted last week many of the images in the posts I am creating are from the exceptional Mardi Gras collection at Howard Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University and Louisiana Digital Library.   And much of the nuggets of Mardi Gras came from two of the Mardi Gras Treasures books by the doyen of Mardi Gras designers Henri Schindler.


On this day in 1969: The Beatles‘ last public performance, on the roof of Apple Records in London. The impromptu concert is broken up by the police.

I Love A Parade – I

February 26, 1884 – New Orleans

Particularly a Mardi Gras Parade; or more particularly a New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade from the Golden Age of Carnival (1870-1930). What exactly gives those sixty years a golden glow I’m not sure but the rich archives of the Louisiana State Library and the Tulane University Carnival Collection suggests a level of imagination, erudition, and sophistication that appeals.

I am astounded by the themes of many of the parades: Phases of Nature, The Rubaiyat, Glimpses of the modern world of art, Myths and Worships of the Chinese, Tennyson, Symbolism of Colors, and the list goes on with some of the most esoteric subjects imaginable. It would seem that the subjects were chosen to challenge the creativity of the artists involved in bring the subjects to life. Many of the creators of the fantastical floats, costumes and masks were unknown but four names stand out in the Golden Age: Charles Briton, Carlotta Bonnecasse, Bror Anders Wikstrom and Jennie Wilde.

For the next four Tuesdays I thought I’d highlight a parade by each of these remarkable creators of Mardi Gras magic starting with the earliest recognized artist: Charles Briton.

“The remains of Charles Briton, the artist, were laid away in Greenwood Cemetery on Wednesday morning. The deceased was forty-three years of age, a native of Gothenberg Sweden, and a resident of this city for twenty years. No person of his kindred was nigh, but neither in life nor death was he neglected.”

The Daily Picayune July 3, 1884.

Old King Cole and his Fiddlers Three, as seen by Charles Briton, process in the 12th Night Revellers’ Mother Goose’s Tea Party on January 6, 1871.  This is part of the earliest complete set of Mardi Gras designs known to exist.  

Briton was a colourful but reticent man with a hidden history. After his death a very unusual item was found amongst his belongings: a uniform which he wore(?) in Mexico as one of Prince Salm-Salm’s regiment, under the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian. After his time in Mexico he moved to New Orleans in the 1860s and launched a career as an architect.  Soon he became the designer of choice for the Mardi Gras parades and tableaux. The name of the artist was as often kept as secret as the membership of the Krewes but his first signed designs were for the Twelfth Night Revellers in 1871. By the time of his death in 1884 he was designing floats, costume, invitations and tableaux for the Revellers and the Rex, Momus, Comus and Proteus Krewes.

Charles Briton saw President Ulysses Grant as a tobacco grub in the Krewe of Comus 1873 Parade
Louisiana Research Collection
Tulane University

The Post-Reconstruction period was one of political turmoil in Louisiana and often the theme of a parade would be turned into a bitterly satirical jab at people and events. In 1873 Comus, the oldest of the Krewes, choose as their theme The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was more than a swipe at Mr Darwin’s unpopular theories: many of the 100 big head masks of those “missing links” bore  resemblances to known personages from Baton Rouge to the White House.  As the torchlight parade marched past – there were no floats that year – it was easy to recognize President Grant as a Tobacco Grub, General Butler who had occupied the city with Federal troops as a Hyena, and other notables as foxes (carpetbaggers), serpents (turncoats), tomcats, and other grotesques.  The parade was blocked at Canal Street by a mob of angry jeering men and had to turn back.  The marchers made their way into the Varieties Theatre for the ball and tableau leaving some ten thousand disappointed spectators along the aborted route.

Sadly many of Briton’s early designs were simply discarded but through a stroke of good fortune all 101 watercolours from 1873 were saved.  They are now housed at the Howard Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University and can be enjoyed at their Digital Library. Though many of the political targets are unknowns today, except to those with an in-depth knowledge of American history, the artistry is a thing of wonder.

The Bloody Shirt float from 1877:  Senator Oliver Morton as Satan is shown waving “the bloody shirt” to fan the flames of “Sectional Hate” during the Reconstruction.

Four years later Briton and the Krewe of Momus were to cause another scandal when they presented Hades, A Dream of Momus.  Again political figures and events were mocked and this time President Grant was enthroned as Beelzebub himself.  The final float was a sinking Ship of State manned by much hated politicians and business men from the State and up North.  The reaction of federal officials was immediate and the Governor wired an apology to the Louisiana representative in Washington.

But as well as the satiric and comic Briton was a designer of the mystic, dramatic and magical.  Over the years he created the wonders of Ancient Egyptian Theology, Military Progress of the World, The History of France, The Pursuit of Pleasure, and The Moors in Spain.  In the last year of his life he produced The Semitic Races for Rex, Illustrated Ireland for Comus, The Passions for Momus and The Aeneid for Proteus.  Sadly with the exception of his drawings of the Proteus parade nothing exists to give us a view of the imagination, wit, and knowledge that Briton brought to these very different subjects.

A much coveted invitation to the Krewe of Proteus Ball and Tableaux on February 26, 1884 at the French Opera House.

So here we are it’s dusk on February 26, 1884 – Shrove Monday – and the crowds have started to gather for the Krewe of Proteus Parade.  We managed get a great viewing spot:  a balcony on Canal Street.  The flambeaux carriers have lit their torches to give light to the proceedings, a brass band has begun to play and the first float is just coming into sight. Let’s follow Aeneas and his adventures from the Fall of Troy until he defeats Turnus and founds Rome.

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Since we’ve been given invitations to the Proteus Ball at the French Opera House we’ll just have time to change into our costumes and make our way through the crowds.  You have to admit the invitation that Charles Briton designed is quite special – you may even want to keep it for your scrap book.

And don’t forget you’re dance card. I understand they play until the early hours of the morning. However bear in mind that as guests we have to wait until Proteus and his Krewe have the first dance. But we can join in “The Lancers” and dance the night away.


Most of the visuals in this post are from the exceptional Mardi Gras collection at Howard Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University and Louisiana Digital Library.   And much of the research came from two of the Mardi Gras Treasures books by the doyen of Mardi Gras designers Henri Schindler which truly are treasures. 

On this day in 1579: The Union of Utrecht forms a Protestant republic in the Netherlands.