Mardi Gras. New Orleans. February 20th. 1917.

On February 20th 1917, the allies were entrenched in France, weathering the downpour of high explosive artillery whilst the workers of New York and Chicago were at their day jobs. But in Alabama and New Orleans people were enjoying a legal holiday. And that holiday was Mardi Gras and it had been growing and spreading like papier-mâché water hyacinths since the 1870s.

Mardi Gras had begun as a Creole Catholic festival in the 1820s but it began to gather mass when organizations led by Protestant clubmen harnassed the energies of the folk carnival to a big business machine. The Mystick Krewe of Comus (the Pickwick Club) appeared in 1857 and was followed by the Knights of Momus in 1871 (the Louisiana Club) and the Rex Krewe in 1872 (the Boston Club.) The clubs paraded and broadcast the carnival to the world and the stratagem worked. By the early 1900s New Orleans was playing host to an estimated fifty thousand visitors during Mardi Gras.

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.)Carnival in New Orleans is the very spirit of gaiety, a grotesque madness, a delightful joke...The huge floats, like gilded and frosted sugar-cake nightmares, trundle in comic magnificence through the crowds. There are monstrous swans, bloated dragons, castles, suns, caverns, giants. Angels with crepey hair balance on swollen clouds blowing gilded trumpets; bearded Neptunes brandish tridents, clowns gambol and grin...It is amazingly gay and grotesque; the people pack the streets all day; crowds pour in from the neighbouring cities and towns, the restaurants are busier than ever, and there are Carnival balls every night where you may dance until dawn and start another day without having gone to your fabulously expensive hall bedroom at all!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.)

Sundry ads of businesses in New Orleans 1917 and photos of Mardi Gras in the early 1900s from New Orleans: What to See and How to See It (1911.)

At the 1917 Mardi Gras the hotels were overcrowded. Unsurprisingly, chief amongst the clubmen exploiting Mardi Gras were the hoteliers. Benedict M. Grunewald, clubman and director of the Grunewald Hotel, was a member of 'several carnival organisations' (Clubmen of Louisiana 96.) Alfred S. Amer, Vice-President and General Manager of the St. Charles Hotel, was also a clubman. And the advertising for the St. Charles Hotel made clear its Mardi Gras affiliation.

Left: Benedict M. Grunewald, Director of the Grunewald Hotel. Middle: Alfred S. Amer, General Manager of the St. Charles Hotel. Right: Front cover of Club Men of Louisiana in Caricature (1917.)
Drawings of Benedict M. Grunewald and Alfred S. Amer from Club Men of Louisiana in Caricature (1917.)

Mildred Cram’s account of the overcrowding of hotels at the 1917 Mardi Gras.mardi-gras-panel-4-altCourtesy 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 Grunewald Hotel. The Cave Restaurant. The St. Charles Hotel. The City Care Forgot.
Left: Grunewald Hotel ad featuring The Cave restaurant from The Washington Herald Dec 1910. Right: St. Charles adverts in The Washington Herald for Dec 1910 and 1917.
Front cover of Souvenir of New Orleans: the City Care Forgot (1917) and pictures of the St. Charles from inside.
Top left: Front cover of Souvenir of New Orleans; the City Care Forgot (1917), and pictures of the St. Charles from inside.

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.