Mobile Carnival Museum Alabama: Where Mardi Gras Was BornMarch 4, 2011 1 Comment
New Orleans, Louisiana has become synonymous with Mardi Gras. People from around the world make the annual pilgrimage for beads, parades, musical performances and king cake. But Mardi Gras actually got its New World start 150 miles down the road in Mobile, Alabama. As long-time New Orleans residents, Dad and I were eager to find out more of the story. Carnival season has just begun, and the Mobile Carnival Museum was a great stop.
Carnival vs. Mardi Gras
Technically, Mardi Gras refers only to Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s actually the day that the party ends. The party season is properly known as Carnival, which officially lasts from Twelfth Night or Epiphany, on January 6, through Mardi Gras. Parades and balls are held throughout the season, but really ramp up in the two weeks before Fat Tuesday. In Mobile Alabama, Carnival-related social events actually begin as early as November. The official date of Mardi Gras varies each year depending on the date of Easter. Confused yet? But most people just call the entire season Mardi Gras and head to a city that celebrates it sometime during the two weeks before Mardi Gras day.
Carnival in Mobile
As the legend goes, in 1699 a group of French Catholics were camped in a small settlement that would later become Mobile. Although they intended to sail back to France, they realized that Mardi Gras day would occur while they were at sea. Preferring to celebrate on dry land, they held the first Mardi Gras on what would become American soil. Once Mobile was established in 1703, the holiday became an annual tradition, with the first known parade occurring in 1711. Mardi Gras in New Orleans did not begin until 1723, when that city became the capital of French Louisiana.
Mobile was also the first to expand Carnival to include Twelfth Night, a tradition brought by Spanish settlers after the American Revolution. In 1831, the tradition expanded again to include masking, or the wearing of masks during celebrations. The first masked krewe, the Cowbellion Society, was highly exclusive and refused to admit new members, even their own sons. Eventually the Cowbellions died out, but their sons started a new masked krewe, the Strikers Independent Society.
Carnival died out in Mobile during the Civil War, but was resurrected by a man named Joe Cain in 1867. When Joe Cain died in 1904, the people of the city had a Mardi Gras picnic by his grave, trashing the cemetery in the process. The city declared that from then on, the cemetery would be closed on Mardi Gras except to the relatives of people buried there.
The next Mardi Gras, a mysterious woman dressed in black, her face veiled, arrived by limo at the cemetery. Claiming to be Joe Cain’s widow, she was admitted to the cemetery, where she wailed over the grave for awhile before heading out to a Mardi Gras parade. The next year, two women arrived together. The numbers continued to grow, and today there is a group of 13 veiled “wives,” known as Cain’s Merry Widows, along with a group of “girlfriends” in red dresses. Interestingly, the identities of the both the widows and the girlfriends have never been exposed, though numerous people have tried over the years.
Mardi Gras Today
Today Mardi Gras in Mobile is both a public party and a private season of balls and parties. Most krewes are exclusive and somewhat secret societies that hold a full schedule of private events from November through Mardi Gras day. There are at least 40 krewes in modern-day Mobile, both single and mixed-gender. There are two separate organizations, one for African-Americans and one for whites. Although the two discussed merging a number of years ago, they did not want to lose the rich traditions that each enjoys. Both are highly respected today.
Commercial advertising in the parades was banned in 1975, so Mardi Gras remains a free public party organized by private groups. For two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras day, there is a parade virtually every night. Float riders throw small aluminum coins called doubloons, beads and trinkets to the waiting crowd. The party is family-friendly and great fun for all ages.
Mobile Carnival Museum
The Mobile Carnival Museum occupies a former private home in the historic district. There is only one float, but numerous costumes worn by Mardi Gras Kings and Queens throughout the past decades. The tour is guided by a local resident with a great deal of Mardi Gras knowledge. Each room focuses on a different aspect of the Carnival experience.
As our tour began, our guide asked each group where we were from. When she learned that Dad and I are from New Orleans, it set up a good-natured rivalry that is as long-standing as Mardi Gras itself. She also had us fill in a few details here and there to help explain to others on the tour how the celebrations differ between the two cities.
The museum tour takes about two hours and is packed with information about the past, present and future of the holiday. Those who are unfamiliar with Mardi Gras will get a great deal of new information, while those who have experienced Mardi Gras have the opportunity to dig deeper.
Tips for Parents
Kids are an important part of Mardi Gras in Mobile, even serving as pages in the Mardi Gras Court. Kids on the tour are invited to step up onto a float and even try on costumes. While some of the information may go over their heads, the brightly colored costumes and frequent video clips keep most kids riveted throughout the tour.
As of 2011, the Mobile Mardi Gras Museum costs $5 per adult and $2 for kids 12 and under. Children under 3 are free. The museum is closed Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The last tour departs at 3 p.m. The well-stocked gift shop offers items in every price range including low-cost masks and other fun souvenirs.