An invitation to celebrate with Mardi Gras memorabilia

NEW ORLEANS – Mardi Gras celebrations are in full swing in New Orleans this week. Daily parades with lavish floats began on Jan. 31 and continue until Fat Tuesday, Feb. 17, when the major krewes of Rex and Zulu head out in the morning. Behind the scenes, members of the many organized Carnival associations enjoy costume balls, another tradition that dates back to the 19th century.

Neal Auction Co. opened their annual “Louisiana Purchase Auction” last November with over 150 lots from Isabel Spelman Devereaux Collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia and offered additional lots in the first auction of 2015. The turn-of-the-century collection included brightly chromolithographed ephemera, principally exotic ball invitations, colorful favor pins given out at the balls, and parade bulletins with pictures of the carnival floats.

Isabel Spelman (1883-1955) not only collected Mardi Gras artifacts, she participated in the celebrations. She was a maid in the Rex Court of 1904, and all her older sisters participated including Caroline, who was Queen of Carnival in 1892. In Neal’s introduction to the collection, her granddaughter wrote: “Gowns and gloves, parasols and fans and mountains of invitations filled her life. Unfolding the magical ball invitations that were sent to her mother and sisters and eventually to her, enchanted her imagination all of her life.”

Neal Vice President Rachel Weathers said of the collection, “The condition was pristine. How that ephemera survived in this climate in such good condition. The story is that the material was in a box under the grandmother’s bed, and the children weren’t allowed to play with it. She saved these things and they were very carefully kept the whole time. Some of those ball invitations were very clever – they are works of art.”

Most intriguing is the cultural diversity of the themes dreamed up by various groups for their annual parades and balls. The Mistick Krewe of Comus, oldest of the Mardi Gras associations, selected “Nippon, the Land of the Rising Sun” in 1892. World expositions had popularized Japanese decorative arts, and The Mikado operetta had been a big hit for Gilbert and Sullivan in 1885. Winnie Davis, the younger daughter of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis was court Queen that year, and she and her maids wore silk kimonos. A vintage five-part fan-shape invitation to that ball was auctioned off for $1,037.

Literary and historical themes abound – the Krewe of Proteus chose Latin classic The Aeneid as their theme in 1884 and “Orlando Furiouso” in 1897. The Knights of Momus selected “Legends from the Court of King Arthur” as for their decorations in 1900. A souvenir pin from their ball with the Lady of the Lake holding Excalibur aloft brought $538 in last fall’s auction.

Creative minds ventured farther afield with ambitious titles such as “The Hindoo Heavens” for Krewe of Proteus in 1889 or “The Inferno” for Krewe of Nereus in 1898. Balls became nights of costumed fantasy that transported dancers to another world. Long before the advent of photos posts, only the imaginative ball invitations remain to suggest the pleasures of those parties presented before solemn Lent kicked in on Ash Wednesday.

Many of the individual pieces in the Spelman collection had been illustrated in historian Henry Schindler’s series of books on Mardi Gras treasures, such as Jewelry of the Golden Age and Invitations of the Golden Age. Schindler was an early collector of the specialty memorabilia and his publications shed light on the artists and inspiration behind the design work. He took time from his busy Mardi Gras schedule to praise the collection sold at Neal’s: “The fabulous collection of Golden Age Carnival memorabilia was the largest such treasure trove from a single family to come to market in many years.”

Schindler and Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles at the Louisiana State Museum, contributed their expertise to Neal’s catalog entries on the extensive collection. In an interview with ACN, Phillips explained, “We have a permanent Mardi Gras exhibit in the Presbytere on Jackson Square, which is just one of our museums here in New Orleans. The display includes a large cross section of the materials that are collected for Mardi Gras including costumes and the type of things that have sold at auction, like the ball invitations.” The galleries contain exhibits from both the 19th and 20th centuries as well as vintage films of past parades; the glittering costume designs are breathtaking.

The curator continued, “The goal of that exhibit is to share the history, because a lot of people don’t realize how deep the history of Mardi Gras goes. And, of course, the origins of Carnival itself had its roots in medieval Europe and even earlier in ancient Greece and Rome. The celebration of Mardi Gras here goes back almost to the beginning of the permanent settlements in Louisiana by the French in the late 1600s, but it wasn’t really till the middle 1800s that the Mardi Gras as we know it today emerged.

“When the collection came in to Neal’s, they needed a little bit of extra assistance in dating some of it and making a conclusion about what it was and how it was used. Many of the ball invitations are dated and labeled with the organization giving the ball and maybe even represent the theme. But some of the other things are a little harder to figure out. Generally, the themes shown on the ball invitation would be carried out in the parade as well, if that particular organization paraded.”

Phillips emphasized the high degree of sophistication in the annual theme choices: “There was a fascination with the unknown and the exotic at the time. The parade themes drew from mythology, literature, and history – they were really meant to be rolling history lessons when they went down the street. They were enlightening and educational as well as entertaining. You see all kinds of cultures represented in the balls and the parades. Japan was a common theme that started popping up in the 1880s and 1890s and there were other themes taken from the Middle East and Far East. Beyond that, there was one parade in the 1890s that historians regard fondly because the theme what other planets might have looked like, an early example of science fiction.”

For an up-to-date schedule of public events connected to Mardi Gras, visit To learn more about Mardi Gras history in New Orleans, go to .