New Orleans January 11, 2019
The History Behind New Orleans’ Oldest Mardi Gras Krewe Will Fascinate You
It’s that magical time of year when Carnival season descends on the city. the Mardi Gras ladders get dusted off, you can stock up on your collection of Mardi Gras cups, and king cakes are everywhere you turn. Mardi Gras has been a time honored tradition since the 1730s, slowly evolving into the Mardi Gras we know today. Since we’re in the beginning of Carnival season, we’d thought we’d take a look back at the history of the oldest Mardi Gras Krewe in New Orleans, and how they shaped Mardi Gras today.
While the origins of Mardi Gras can be traced all the way back to medieval Europe, the first Mardi Gras was actually celebrated in Mobile, not New Orleans.
In 1702, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" which we now know today as Mobile, Alabama. The following year, that tiny community celebrated the first Mardi Gras in the country.
New Orleans was established a few years later, in 1718, also by Bienville. It didn’t take long for the culture to spread, and by the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated in the city.
Though it looked much different than the Mardi Gras we know today, there were still some similarities. By the 1740s, the Louisiana governor had established elegant society balls, which became the Mardi Gras balls we know today.
In 1856 that a group of six men from Mobile got together to form the Mistick Krewe of Comus, New Orleans’ first official Mardi Gras krewe.
Comus was known for their incredible floats known as tableaux cars and masked balls. Mystery was a big element in this krewe, with members remaining anonymous. Even today, secrecy of its members remains of great importance.
Comus’ first night parade introduced torches to light the route, what later became known as flambeauxs.
Complete with marching bands and rolling floats, their first parade was a sensational hit and paved the way for future Mardi Gras celebrations.
Comus ran fairly regularly from 1856-1991.
Although they did stop parading during times of war, and encouraged other krewes to do the same. Fun fact: Comus chose not to parade from 1885-1889, and during this time the Krewe of Proteus took their coveted parade route on Mardi Gras night. When Comus came back in 1890, Proteus refused to change their route, so both parades collided on Canal Street, in a bit of a stand off. As the captains of either krewe were staring each other down, a member of the Comus crew led Proteus captain’s horse away, enabling Comus to continue down the route.
We have Comus to thank for another time-honored tradition: the "meeting of the courts".
This tradition began in 1882 when the Rex, the King of Carnival, and his queen paid a formal visit to the Comus’ throne. Over the years this ritual evolved into symbolizing the end of Mardi Gras, and the practice still continues today.
Comus was known for its secrecy and exclusivity.
They closely guarded the identities of its members, more so than any other krewe. In 1991, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that required all social organizations—including Mardi Gras Krewes— to publicly announce that they do not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation or they would not be able to obtain the required parade permits. Comus, Momus, and Proteus withdrew from parading, although Proteus eventually went back to parading.
While they no longer parade, the Mistick Krewe of Comus still holds an annual ball.
And still closely guards its membership and activities, and invitations to the ball are highly sought after. Above is a photograph of a Comus Ball invitation from 1893.
Do you remember going to Comus parades? What’s your favorite Mardi Gras parade? Let us know in the comments below!