Mardi Gras. New Orleans. February 20th. 1917.
By 1917 the general character of Mardi Gras in New Orleans was widely known to national newspaper readers and few detailed reports exist. It is said to have drawn the largest ever attendance (Evening Capital News Feb 26 1917 pg 5) and that the increase in numbers had been the result of war in Europe. A few tourists recorded their impressions. Wint Reynolds of Paw Paw, Michigan wrote:
‘The Mardi Gras is in full swing. An elaborate system of decorative street lighting, as well as the built up day decorations make a background for the most magnificent floats you ever saw. The Knights of Momus have a parade tonight, representing the story of Baron Munchausen. I can’t describe the oriental splendor of it all’ (The True Northerner Feb 23 1917 pg 5.)
Tourist Mildred Cram recorded her impressions of the 1917 Mardi Gras in her book Old Seaport Towns of the South (1917.)The folk kernel of Mardi Gras, however, in the early 1900s is largely unrecorded and exists now perhaps only in the published recollections of authors such as Lyle Saxon and Louis Armstrong, in the traditions of lesser known carnival organizations, and in photographs. There are many invaluable photographs in the numerous guidebooks to New Orleans but there are perhaps few as revealing as those contained in the Telling-Grandon Scrapbook , a private collection of photos taken by tourists to New Orleans in 1903. It can be viewed at the Lousiana Digital Libray and the Mardi Gras photos start at about page 70 (0014c). The image below is a collection of 1917 adverts for New Orleans businesses and a page of Mardi Gras’ photos from New Orleans: What to See and How to See it (1911.)
Mildred Cram’s account of the overcrowding of hotels at the 1917 Mardi Gras.Courtesy of the hotels, however, guests for the 1917 Mardi Gras could dine in the famous Cave restaurant in The City Care Forgot. In 1910 the hotels had upped their game, the St. Charles and the Grunewald locked in creative rivalry. For the coming 1911 season both had artistically overhauled their restaurants. F. D. Armstrong remarked that ‘the two largest hotels in New Orleans have
expended about $250,000 on improvements…the St. Charles has turned the famous palm garden into an Italian garden which is totally different from anything in the United States, and the Grunewald has converted the basement, twenty feet under ground, into the most artistic restaurant in the world’ (The Evening Times Jan 6 1911 pg 3.) This latter restaurant was The Cave and it became famous as a nightclub and jazz venue. Both hotels also advertised in the December newspapers in Washington and New York. The Grunewald advertized The Cave and the St. Charles Hotel associated itself with a sobriquet that was used for the first time in print and would become legendary. The St. Charles adverts of 1910 for the 1911 Mardi Gras’ season referred to New Orleans as ‘The City Care Forgot’ and the city never looked back. In 1917 the St. Charles issued a complimentary booklet to its Mardi Gras’ guests entitled A Souvenir of New Orleans: The City Care Forgot (1917.)
The 1917 Mardi Gras in New Orleans was considered a resounding success, though not everyone was happy. Tourists complained about the hotel prices that ranged from $8 to $25 a day, about the myriad pickpockets and confidence men who worked the carnival, and some even complained of the sinful attractions of Storyville. Jean Gordon, on hearing these stories, announced renewed vigour in her assault upon vice in New Orleans. Forces were against the good times and the 1917 Mardi Gras was a fin de siècle of sorts. On April 6, 1917, the United States joined the allied forces in Europe in the war against Germany, and in New Orleans City Hall announced the suspension of Mardi Gras for 1918. On November 12th 1917, the US Navy achieved Jean Gordon’s goal of closing down Storyville. Strangely though, rumor had it that the hotels had also played their part, envious of the trade of the restricted district. So when the carnival resumed in 1920, without Storyville, without alcohol, without the French Opera House, and with only one parade and the whole country obssessed with the High Cost of Living, everybody was quite disappointed. It rained heavily too.