Beads, according to research conducted by my colleague Doug MacCash, became part of Mardi Gras currency in New Orleans shortly before World War 1.
Float riders tossed trinkets and beads to the crowds, but this was a more modest era, long before young ladies would flash intimate parts of their anatomy in exchange for a few worthless pieces of plastic on a string.
Worthless those pieces of plastic certainly are, but that's not how they seem in the fierce scramble to catch them when the parade rolls by. As a result, many residents of these parts will have been left with bags of beads gathering dust in an attic. Tons of beads are discarded on the streets every year to be flushed out of storm drains when the fun is over. Why these cheap and toxic geegaws were ever prized becomes a mystery in the cold gray light of dawn.
If you look at the earliest parade pictures, you will find no hands stretched out, no eyes raised entreatingly at float riders. The first modern parades were apparently designed to entertain and instruct a stationary audience; Comus led the way in 1857 with two highly educational horse-drawn tableaux depicting the “demon actors” of John Milton's “Paradise Lost.”
Comus and other early krewes showed a marked preference for literary and hifalutin' themes, so it seems that exposing the masses to improving works was part of the plan. The three other so-called “old line krewes” — Rex, Momus and Proteus — were established after the Civil War.
There is no question that Carnival parades have become coarser and less sophisticated since those days. The superkrewes of the modern era may be epic in scale, but the intellectual and artistic heft of Carnival's golden age, which straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, is lacking.
We are indebted to New Orleans Carnival scholar Henri Schindler for a series of books preserving the artifacts of that era, including float and costume designs, bal masque invitations, jewelry and krewe favors.
But it was not just a facility for the visual arts that distinguished the productions of the earliest krewes, male bastions of wealth and privilege with membership by invitation only.
Comus and Momus clearly included writers of wit and erudition in their ranks. Comus's theme in 1873, for instance, was “The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of Species." Written in the heroic couplets favored by the great satirist Alexander Pope, this was a pastiche mocking the theory of evolution with a zest that makes you briefly overlook the perversity of the writer's views.
In 1877, “Hades a Dream of Momus” abandoned the light satiric touch to launch a savage but ingenious attack on the Reconstruction government. To a large extent the history of New Orleans Mardi Gras is the history of the city itself.
Beads are certainly a big part of that history, albeit as something of a mixed blessing.
It took the old-line krewes an unconscionable time to join the modern world, if, indeed, they have done so yet. They remained a White preserve until 1992 when Dorothy Mae Taylor, the City Council's resident firebrand at the time, managed to pass a desegregation ordinance. It only came about after decades of struggle. Even then, the ordinance, although never formally challenged, was evidently unconstitutional, the courts having consistently ruled that parades are a form of self-expression fully covered by the First Amendment.
Email James Gill at email@example.com.