After decades of searching for the footage, Arthur Hardy, the publisher of an annual New Orleans Mardi Gras guide, had nearly given up.
He was looking for a film of the Mardi Gras parade from 1898 that was only rumored to exist, the New York Times’ Alex Traub writes. Numerous calls to experts and institutions like the Library of Congress and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had been unsuccessful.
But then Hardy reached out to Wayne Phillips, a curator at the Louisiana State Museum, who contacted Will French, a corporate lawyer and in-house historian for the Rex Organization, which helps organize the parade. French contacted film archivist Mackenzie Roberts Beasley.
In March, after some sleuthing, Beasley found the film in an unlikely place: the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, reports the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate’s John Pope. The film is not only the oldest moving picture of a New Orleans Mardi Gras; it’s the oldest film of New Orleans.
The two-minute, 68-millimeter film was shown publicly this month at the Louisiana State Museum, and it will be incorporated into an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Rex Organization.
“This probably, in Louisiana film history, is the most important find,” Ed Poole, author of several books on the subject, tells the Times.
Taken on February 22, 1898, the film depicts six floats from the parade. The theme that year was “Harvest Queens,” per the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. People carried silver bell-shaped placards before each float to commemorate the Rex Organization’s 25th anniversary.
According to the Times, one float is pineapple-themed, with riders wearing hats shaped like pieces of pineapple and vests resembling pineapple skin. Another features the Rex, the “King of the Carnival,” sitting atop a float decorated with tasseled globes. The Rex that year was Charles A. Farwell.
“I never knew him,” Farwell’s granddaughter, Lynne Farwell White, tells the Times. “I never was face to face with him. I never saw him as a person—and there he was as a live person in the film. As a granddaughter, it was a special moment.”
Mardi Gras is one of the many worldwide celebrations that recognize Fat Tuesday—the last day before Lent, which historically was characterized by giving up meat, sweets and other delicacies. Originating in medieval Europe, by the 17th and 18th centuries the festivities had become an annual event for the French House of the Bourbons.
French settlers brought the practice to what would become the United States, celebrating the first Mardi Gras in 1703. (This first celebration actually took place in Mobile, Alabama.) The parades came later, with official processions starting in New Orleans in the 1830s; floats were introduced in 1856.
Footage shows that while Mardi Gras parades from over a century ago are in many ways similar to today’s, the festival has certainly evolved, the Times reports. For instance, while modern revelers often dress casually (and sometimes wear very little clothing at all), parade-goers in 1898 donned formal attire and carried parasols. People riding on floats were not throwing beads or coins into the crowd, and no police or barricades were present for crowd control.
On the flipside, one tradition from 1898 has since disappeared: The boeuf gras, or fatted ox, was once a live bull. The film shows an actual bovine perched atop one of the floats. This tradition ended in the early 20th century, writes the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, when officials decided it was “no longer tasteful.” Today’s parades opt instead for a papier-maché version.
“It’s certainly grown and changed a bit,” Hardy tells the Times, “but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same.”