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Cornelius Durkee's Photographs of the Rex Parade of 1901

Carnival in New Orleans is more than a century old, of course, but in keeping with the prevailing theme of the year 2000, this exhibit focuses on Carnival memorabilia from 1900, a century before our celebration of the new millennium, and from 1901, the year New Orleanians celebrated the dawn of the twentieth century.

It focuses also not on the history of the Carnival krewes represented here, but on Carnival memorabilia -- the newspaper "carnival editions," invitations, admit cards, and dance programs produced by those organizations, all emblems of the ritual and fantasy which is at the heart of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This items displayed here are all from the Louisiana Division's Carnival Collection, which also includes a large number of krewe badges, favors, throws, Zulu coconuts, and even some costumes from the 1860s through the present day.

In 1886, the Krewe of Proteus became the first Carnival organization to present full color chromolithograph newspaper editions showing the float designs for its "street pageant." Other krewes quickly followed suit, and these "carnival editions" or "bulletins" continued to be printed and sold on street corners for a dime until 1941. Two such editions are on view here, both from Rex; the 1900 Rex edition is a smaller format booklet, with a separate design on each page. The 1901 edition is more typical of the bulletins -- a double newspaper sheet showing all of the floats.

The invitations to Carnival balls shown here are examples of two types of invitations -- one typical of the 19th century and the other more common in the 20th century. The earlier invitations issued by many of the old-line krewes were often die-cut chromolithographs, extravagantly designed to illustrate the theme of the krewe's ball and sometimes intricately unfolding to reveal even more elaborate designs inside. Many of these invitations, like the costumes, masks, and jewelry worn by members of the krewe, were ordered from Paris.

Just after the turn of the century, however, the krewes began to move away from these fancy, foreign-made invitations and to choose instead more restrained, more "elegant" and "dignified" designs. While the krewes would continue to issue colorful invitations in later years, they never returned to the elaborate Parisian creations of the early years. The 1901 Rex invitation seen here is the last such invitation issued by Rex, and the two Nereus invitations of 1900 and 1901 clearly show the contrast between the two styles.

Admit cards were enclosed in invitations and were often as beautifully designed as the invitations themselves. Marked "strictly personal," these cards could not be passed on to another individual and served to ensure the exclusiveness of the krewe's invitation list, made up by the organization's "invitations committee" and strictly guarded.

The dance programs carried by the young women who attended the balls can be as wonderful as the invitations themselves. Like the admit cards, they usually mirrored the theme of the ball, and came with little pencils attached with silken, tasseled chords.

Also seen here are a series of remarkable photographs taken in 1901 by Cornelius Durkee, a Carnival visitor to the city from Saratoga Springs, New York. Durkee photographed the ceremonial arrival of Rex by boat at the foot of Canal Street on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras, and the next morning he took photos of the Rex floats as they emerged from the krewe's den. Durkee also took wonderful shots of New Orleanians waiting for the parade along St. Charles Avenue and at Lee Circle. This exhibit includes only a sample of the Durkee photographs. The complete Durkee Collection is available online HERE.

Carnival has changed much and, at the same time, little in the last century. One truth that remains is that the street scene of Carnival parades and merriment is only the more visible side of New Orleans' unique festival. Behind the parades attended by hundreds of thousands of spectators are the carnival krewes who run the show. The mementoes here belonged to some those who made Mardi Gras possible a century ago.

The exhibit and its online version were designed and mounted by Louisiana Division staff member Irene Wainwright. The exhibit will remain on view on the third floor of the Main Library through the beginning of March, 2000. This online version can be seen in NUTRIAS indefinitely.

Happy Mardi Gras!

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