New Orleans has forever been a math problem.
How many annual storms does it take to make a 100-year flood?
How many Peychaud dashes does it take to make a timeless sazerac?
How many NFC Championship fouls does it take to make a timely pass interference?
I could go on.
To the natural mathematical problems—with our earthen levees, Wood screw pumps, Army Corps fortress—we add the math of years. We count centennially ‘round here.
1699. 1718. 1727. 1803. 1815. 1865. 1965. 1984. 2005. Those are abacus numbers. Nothing here for fingers and toes.
If you can’t repeat them all from memory, there will be a quiz at the end (hint: I would tell my Ursuline girls that I would never recommend a tattoo, but if I did sit for the needlepoint art, you could do worse than “1727.”).
The first of those four-digit numbers has now entered its fourth century. 1699: the year Iberville won the race to the mouth of the Mississippi.
Legend has it, having ingratiated himself sufficiently with the locals (charm has always been a particularly Louisiana virtue), Iberville was shown a full-out French-Canadian jacket—undoubtedly the “I ♡ NY” gear of the 17th century. Having seen that, Iberville had seen enough. Convinced of the spot, he would return to set up some encampments in Mobile and Biloxi, before dying in Havana in 1706, leaving the rest of the city founding to brother Bienville.
And where did Iberville plant flag in 1699? Wrong question, dear reader.
And when did Iberville plant flag in 1699? March 3, 1699.
On Mardi Gras Day.
Appropriately, at a bend in the river he christened Pointe du Mardi Gras.
Sometimes, every so often, we miss the whole Pointe du Mardi Gras. Not the physical location—just look up Buras, for all you playing cartographer at home. But the anglicized “point” of if all.
Last night at the Presbytére, that realization was brought home to an overflow, second floor crowd.
To connect 1699 to 2022, Rex suggests a big, bridging number: 1898.
For the first time in New Orleans history, we saw a living, breathing, slightly grainy glimpse of 19th century Mardi Gras. And it only took ninety-three minutes and four speakers to get there! New Orleans is forever a math problem, lest you forget.
In a word, the four-float footage of Rex’s 1898 procession is astounding. It may be the most enjoyable one-minute-forty-nine-seconds of my carnival life.
Discovered in the Dutch National Film Museum in Amsterdam after years of hunting, the film features Rex riding against traffic, as it were. With its den on Calliope St. in those days, the krewe would return home by heading uptown on St. Charles Ave., passing in front of Gallier Hall the same way the streetcars do today.
Our reigning monarch, King of Carnival James Reis III, began the film premier by placing three centuries of parade-goers together on the red carpet. “What’s amazing is it’s not what’s different,” Rex 2022 reviewed. “It’s what’s the same.”
And that’s true. Royal Artists now and royal artists then seem to reach into the same paint bucket. Rex riders are playful, without ever revealing their liquid warming agent (it was a low of 39° on February 22, 1898). And the streets…let’s just say Rex’s passive animations were familiarly effective.
There wasn’t much costuming, but there were scores of people. And unlike many of those early pictures of Canal St. throngs, not just with White people.
In a city still pulsating post-Reconstruction (the Liberty Place obelisk was erected by the White League in 1891, as a reference point), there are Black New Orleanians standing under the shadow of the Choctaw Club and slave-built Gallier Hall, shoulder-to-shoulder with White New Orleanians, all greeting Rex.
Only in the land of Mardi Gras.
But no matter certain similarities, our minds jump to the hidden-picture differences.
For one, Rex himself. Thirty-eight-year-old bachelor Charles A. Farwell is now the farthest branch of only-for-a-day royalty brought digitally close. His great-grandson attended the film premier, garnering a heartier cheer than Rex himself. You see, we love bigger numbers here, your highness.
Bigger than life, however, was my star of the show: the boeuf gras. I had long heard that the earliest rolling tableaus included some trotting hooves. In fact, Rex Historian Dr. Stephen Hales shared with the Presbytére crowd that if a 19th century Frenchman were dropped into the celebration it would be the boeuf gras that would orient him immediately. The French even called their procession the “parade of the boeuf gras.”
What I had never heard was, for a few years, the boeuf gras got a lift. Three years before its banishment in 1901—as Dr. Hales sadly retold the reasoning, the boeuf gras “was not congruent with the level of artistry in the Rex parade” (some sensibilities stay the same!)—there the majestic animal stood, riding atop a float, eight feet in the air.
How did it get up there?
How were only four mules carrying the load?
How did the riders slip their warming agent into the feed-mill? (It was a very docile, very big boy.)
For one night, during the heatwave of June, Mardi Gras came home, dazzling in nearly two minutes of black-and-white imagery.
And with it, another date to commit to memory, about halfway from Pointe du Mardi Gras and today.
New Orleans is forever the best of math problems.
The Rex footage is believed to be the oldest existing footage of New Orleans. My YouTube search and late-night Googling revealed no better hits (no, that moon shot in the eye graphic was not shot in New Orleans, but only played here—and in 1902.) Still, enjoy this 1920s glimpse.
And glimpsing was a New Orleanians hobby. Did you know the oldest movie theater in the United States was on Canal St.?
To put it all into context, the oldest video of any type came from Leeds, England in 1888, just ten years before the Rex footage. The Roundhay Garden Scene also holds the distinction of a 7.3 ranking on IMDb (I wish I were joking…).
And the numbers? C’mon, y’all know them, right? 1699. 1718. 1727. 1803. 1815. 1865. 1965. 1984. 2005. Make sure to head to the Presbytére so you can add 1898 to your list!