New Orleans is the city of many names and many faces. In 19th century journalism it was frequently referred to as “The Crescent City,” the name deriving from the bend in the Mississippi where the original settlement, the Vieux Carré, was established. New names were coined in the late 19th and early 20th century as different groups promoted their interests in the city. By the early 1910s, it was known variously as “The Paris of America,” “The Metropolis of the South,” and “The City That Care Forgot.”
The title “The Paris of America” was one that New Orleans disputed with Cincinnati, San Francisco, and even Boston. If the Crescent City can lay absolute claim to this title, then it won because of artist’s depictions of the French Quarter as quaint and exotic and because of the reputation of its cuisine. And “The Metropolis of the South” was a title also shared with other cities but gathered weight as New Orleans in the early 20th century made improvements to its wharves, roads, and railways.
The renown of the last sobriquet “The City That Care Forgot” is often credited to the New Orleans City Guide (1938) wherein it is connected with the city’s fame for pleasure seeking. Research proves, however, that the name was in wide circulation 25 years earlier, occurring most regularly in relation to Mardi Gras. In 1913, anticipating Mardi Gras, a journalist writes, ‘the Louisiana metropolis has been called…”The City That Care Forgot”…and to-day every aspect will justify that description’ (The Bridgeport Evening Farmer Feb 4 1913.)
Some of the sobriquet’s success in gaining currency was due to its reception as the kind of bon mot that tripped off of the tongue of O. Henry. The phrase seemed to convey the double meaning of New Orleans as both carefree and neglected. Baseball journalist ‘Bugs’ Baer attests to the currency of this interpretation in 1920 when he writes that ‘New Orleans is four-sheeted among the proverbs and wise cracks as the town[sic] that care forgot’ (The Washington Herald March 30th 1920.)
However the likely origin of “The City That Care Forgot” is quite humdrum and its irony accidental. The nickname most likely originates from an advertisement for the St. Charles Hotel in The Washington Herald in December 1910. It was designed to draw trade to the hotel from travelers to Mardi Gras. I have as yet found no references prior to 1910. In 1917 The St. Charles Hotel gave an attractive complimentary booklet to Mardi Gras’ guests. It’s title ‘Souvenir of New Orleans: The City That Care Forgot.’
And the apparent wit of the name is most likely an accident of phrasing and perception. The ‘care forgot’ construction was common to poetry and it seems unlikely that a business hoping to encourage trade would intend to say ‘Come to New Orleans, the roads aren’t very good but everybody’s carefree.’
In fact this perception of neglect embodied in the sobriquet irritated business leaders of New Orleans. In 1917 John B. Swinney of the Tulane College of Commerce was quoted as saying ‘that the calling of New Orleans “The City That Care Forgot” might do something to attract visitors here, but it could do nothing to attract business or industrial enterprises’ (The Morgan City Daily Review Dec 13th 1917.) He advised business men to cease showing [visitors] old and historic buildings, dingy with age and neglect, and to show them instead the terminal facilities, the factories and the main business of the city.’
In reaction, business leaders tried to cook up a name of their own. In 1919 an article began circulating in US newspapers advertising and describing New Orleans as “The Gateway to the Mississippi Valley.” The article ran in too many newspapers for too many years for it to be the result of the common practice of clipping articles from other papers to fill up space. The article reads like a business manifesto. And the designation of New Orleans as said gateway first appears in the 25th anniversary of Algiers’ newspaper The Herald published on the 27th June 1918.
Text copyright Paul Vargas December 20th 2015.