Mardi Gras History: The Old Line Krewes

Mardi Gras may have some flashy, star-studded, colossal parades, but the old line krewes maintain their original parade traditions to this day.

The “super-krewes” of Carnival begin their parades on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, when the Krewe of Endymion takes to the streets of New Orleans. Endymion is followed by Bacchus on Sunday, Orpheus on Monday, with Zulu and Rex on Fat Tuesday. That’s not all the parades of Carnival, though! In the weekend prior to Endymion, as well as the in-between week, there are a number of parades, both in the city and the suburbs. Some of those krewes have been around for over seventy years. In many ways, their parades have been unchanged for decades, and locals like them just that way.

Illustration of the King’s Float from the Krewe of Proteus, 1907 (public domain)

Why do these parades continue to be popular in this age of the “super-krewes?” Locals will tell you that it’s precisely because they’re not huge. Families can drive Uptown less than an hour before the krewe gets to “their spot” on the route, park, and find a good place to see the parade. The krewe members may not be as many, but they are just as capable throwing beads, trinkets, and doubloons.

And the floats! Instead of massive floats holding hundreds, the “old-line” krewes still use the basic wagon-frames they used in the 1940s and 1950s. Their themes often come from mythology, literature and world history.

But don’t worry, in spite of all the high-brow themes, they really do throw stuff!

There are three “old-line” krewes still parading, the Knights of Babylon, Krewe of Hermes and the Krewe of Proteus. While it’s definitely true that Rex and Zulu are also “old-line” parades as well, Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy moved these two up to “super krewe” status years ago.

Knights of Babylon (Thursday, February 4, 2016)

Sargon the First is illustrated leading the inaugural parade of the
Knights of Babylon, 1940

In 1939, a group of professional men organized a social club, the Jesters Club. Many of the krewes in existence at that time were very selective in terms of membership, so there were doctors, lawyers and other professionals who were unable to get into these krewes. The Jesters Club formed the Knights of Babylon. The krewe paraded for the first time in 1940, and are now one of the oldest organizations that still parade. Babylon was the Wednesday night fixture in the parade schedule for decades until shakeups in that schedule in the 1990s opened up the Thursday night slot on the Uptown route.

The Knights of Babylon carry through their namesake land’s theme completely. Their king is named Sargon, and their signature floats – that roll every year, along with the regular member floats which change annually with the new theme – include the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the “Temple of Marduk.” The officers of Babylon ride on a well-made replica float that depicts an old mule-drawn “bobtail” streetcar from the 1860s.

Babylon parades on the “Uptown route,” starting up on Napoleon Avenue, making their way into the CBD and Canal Street. The parade ends on Canal Street at the Sheraton Hotel, where the krewe holds their ball masque.

Krewe of Hermes (Friday, February 5, 2016)

A mythological scene, the “Apacalypse Of Ragnarock,” is depicted on one of the floats in the
2007 parade of the Krewe of Hermes

Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first time New Orleans used Mardi Gras as a cure for city-wide problems and sadness. Carnival time was one of the things that got the city through the Great Depression. In typical New Orleans fashion, a group of businessmen wanted to expand the celebration for the 1937 Carnival season. There were parades over the weekend before Fat Tuesday, but nothing on the Friday before. With the late Congressman F. Edward Hebert as a sponsor and mentor, these businessmen gathered enough interested men to hold a parade.

The Krewe of Hermes was an instant hit. Looking to introduce new ideas to the Carnival celebration, the krewe outlined their floats with neon lights, so that the floats lit themselves as well as drawing light from the flambeaux carriers marching along with them.

Now in it’s 75th year, Hermes still parades on the Friday before Mardi Gras, on the Uptown route. Hermes holds its formal bal masque the night before the parade. The king and his court are presented to the guest, and a festive supper dance is held after the ball.

In addition to the float parade on Friday night, Hermes continues a long-standing tradition of a “walking parade” in the French Quarter. Carnival organizations have long been restricted from bringing their floats into the Quarter, mainly for fire safety and traffic control reasons. Mindful of their roots, however, Hermes members, dressed in business suits with krewe-logo ties, gather on Royal Street and march through the Quarter, throwing beads and doubloons. They then make their way to the parade’s Uptown staging area for the ride.

Krewe of Proteus (Lundi Gras, February 8, 2015)

Invitation to the bal masque of the Krewe of Proteus, 1883 (public domain)

The second-oldest krewe still parading (Rex is the oldest), the Krewe of Proteus rolls on Lundi Gras on the Uptown route. Proteus, along with the other krewes founded in the 1880s set the style of what is now the “old-line” krewes. Rolling on the Uptown route, Proteus moves quickly, to get to their bal masque, and to make way for the Orpheus super-krewe.

Proteus may be old (their first parade was in 1883), but they’re still innovative, introducing imaginative throws each year to parade-goers. Since they parade on Lundi Gras, Proteus is the most-seen of the “old-line” krewes.

If you can get to town in the week before Mardi Gras, be sure to come out for the “old-line” parades. You’re in for a treat!

Edward Branley is the author of Maison Blanche Department StoresNew Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is a partner in Yatmedia LLC, and is @Yatpundit on Twitter. He considers himself to be a “Sidewalk Side” kind of guy.