15 vintage photos of Mardi Gras in New Orleans show it’s always been a wild party

The annual Bacchus Parade in the early 1900s.

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The annual Bacchus Parade in the early 1900s.
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Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images
  • Mardi Gras “Carnival” was first referenced in a 1781 report to the Spanish governing body, and that iconic year kicked off the formation of hundreds of carnival organizations, which have carried on their legacy ever since.
  • By the late 1830s, parades were in full swing, with krewes marching through streets illuminated by gaslight torches.
  • In 1872, the official Mardi Gras colors were declared. Purple representing justice; gold for power; and green for faith. Three years later, Fat Tuesday was deemed a national holiday in Louisiana.
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Mardi Gras arrived in the United States in the late 1600s, thanks to the Le Moyne brothers, whom King Louis XIV sent to defend France’s right to the territory of Louisiane.

Traditionally, Fat Tuesday ushered in the last chance to eat fatty foods and party through the night before the self-denial season of Lent began for Christians.

But even after France decamped from the New World, their traditional spring hurrah stuck around. The infamous days spent parading through busy streets lit by gaslight torches, wearing masks to remain anonymous, decorating floats for months, and of course, lots of throws doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

To gear up for Mardi Gras, check out these vintage photos from the early 20th century, which prove it’s always been America’s coolest party.

Paige Cooperstein contributed to a previous version of this story.


The royal chariot with Rex, the King of the Carnival, starts the Mardi Gras procession in downtown New Orleans, in 1906.

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Getting to see the king is always a special treat.
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Library of Congress

The Rex pageant joined the Mardi Gras parades in 1872, and to this day is still one of the most celebrated parades, with “Rex” reigning as the King of Carnival.

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The parade makes its way through downtown New Orleans.
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Library of Congress

During the parade, civilians would pack into every corner of the street, even sitting atop scaffolding and climbing onto tiny balconies just to catch a glimpse of the floats.

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This parade took place sometime between 1890 and 1910.
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Library of Congress

There is always an air of mystery while watching the floats, because float-riders wear detailed masks to hide their identities.

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A woman makes detailed masks of different politicians’ faces.
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Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The parade winds down Canal Street, the widest business district street in the country that was originally intended to just be a common area. Today, you can still ride the streetcar down the same tracks.

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The procession even gave the horses “masks” to keep them anonymous.
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Library of Congress

Source: Friedman


Rex passes by Camp Street on its typical route through downtown New Orleans between 1900 and 1906.

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Today, Camp Street is famous for having iconic New Orleans-style houses.
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Library of Congress

Parades have always been inventive and theatrical, often poking fun at the theme for the krewe. Here, a 1907 Mardi Gras celebration shows a float towering over the crowds of people.

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Riding on a float has always been an honor.
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Library of Congress

Floats from the Bachus parade make their way through the screaming crowds full of hands waving for throws in the early 1900s.

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Crowds gather at the Bacchus Parade.
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Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

Each float takes months to design and put together, and are always kept a secret until the day of the parade.

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With New Orleans’ unpredictable weather, the floats always need to be weather-proof.
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Grey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Here, a float is seen honoring the life of John Audubon, an American naturalist and artist known for his study of birds, in 1956.

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The float passes through eager crowds.
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Three Lions/Getty Images

As the float approaches you, the best thing to do is put your hands up and scream for beads. A Mardi Gras queen tosses beads during a parade in the 1950s.

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Crowds wave their hands to catch beads during a parade.
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Grey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Mardi Gras is all about letting loose, and it’s tradition to don a wild outfit. A storefront is seen here advertising a few options in 1941.

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A sign advertises Santa Claus outfits.
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Library of Congress

Mardi Gras is a family affair, and the costumes are no exception. A family of six dolled up as clowns watch the parade from the sidelines in 1956.

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A family of clowns takes part in the festivities.
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Three Lions/Getty Images

In 1906, Rex is seen receiving an honorary key to the city of New Orleans in front of Gallier Hall as the grand finale of their parade.

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The grand finale of the parade ended with a special key.
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Library of Congress

The celebration continues into the night as the krewes usually throw luxe balls filled with dancing and drinking, as seen here in 1929.

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A festive Mardi Gras party.
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images