Image provided courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, John T Mendes Photograph Collection, Gift of Waldemar S. Nelson, 2003.0182.162
A Mardi Gras masker in 1919. While there were no large krewe events that year, “celebration of an impromptu nature” was expected. Thousands took part of the masking and carousing on Mardi Gras day as encouraged by Mayor Martin Behrman. Canal Street retail shops remained open until 1 p.m., which is why most photos of 1919 Mardi Gras portray people in both costume and business attire.
This year, 2021, marks the 15th time Carnival in New Orleans has been totally or partially cancelled, whether by city government or the krewes themselves.
The first cancellation was for the Civil War, spanning from 1862 through 1865. Comus cancelled all events for those four years with a proclamation commanding “no assemblage of the Mystick Krewe.” Not all revelry was halted, however; Union commanders and sympathizers held masquerade balls, and masking was allowed on Mardi Gras days.
In 1875, tensions between white supremacists and local police and militia resulted in occupation by federal troops, and Rex and Comus cancelled their events. Yellow Fever in 1879 caused some krewes to cancel parades, but not all of them.
A complete cancellation occurred in 1918 for World War I. That year was also the bicentennial of New Orleans, and elaborate celebrations were scheduled to coincide with Mardi Gras. Not only were all events, parades and balls cancelled, Mayor Martin Behrman also banned masking, as “promiscuous masking would afford enemy aliens … to commit crime while thus disguised.” The continued recovery from World War I combined with the Spanish flu cancelled all the large krewe events in 1919.
America’s involvement with World War II cancelled all celebrations from 1942 to 1945. Instead of Carnival parades and parties, a hugely successful War Bond Drive was held on Mardi Gras day 1943, inspiring other cities across America to hold drives on holidays. During the Korean War in 1951, the older, larger krewes didn’t parade, but others did.
The most recent cancellation was due to the Police Union Strike in 1979. The strike over pay and benefits could not be resolved as Carnival began. With not enough police available to ensure the safety of paradegoers, all Orleans Parish krewes either cancelled their parades or moved them to neighboring parishes, but balls and other traditional events were still held. Recognizing that while parades could be cancelled, the merrymaking could not, the National Guard came in to help oversee masking revelers in the French Quarter during what the newspaper called Mardi Decharne (“Skinny Tuesday”).