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Mardi Gras of the Ninteenth Century

February 15, 2012

(Editor’s Note: This year at Living History Farms, we will be celebrating leisure in 19th century American life. The farm is often a lot of work, but families still found time for leisure. This summer we will be hosting hands-on activities revolving around leisure in a program called “For the Fun of It!” You will have to check it out when you make it to the farms this summer.  For now, I will give you a preview with some of the research I have been conducting.) 

It’s Carnival season, which is historically the time between Twelfth Night (Epiphany) and Ash Wednesday. In 2012, the dates for the season are January 7th to February 21st. For the majority of us here in central Iowa, Carnival goes mostly unnoticed until we hear the revelry of those celebrating in New Orleans or see the brightly colored krewe parades on TV. After reading a passage in a nineteenth century diary, I wondered about the origins of Mardi Gras and how much Iowans would know about what I always assumed was a giant street party. I was delighted with what I found out.

In previous posts on this blog I have referred to the diary of Sarah Gillespie Huftalen of Manchester, Iowa. I may not have made mention that her mother, Emily Hawley Gillespie, was a great diarist, something she passed on to her daughter. Because we represent a 1900 farm, I reference Sarah’s diary a lot as Emily dies in 1888. Still, there is much valuable material about Victorian Iowa in Emily’s diary. One passage in particular stuck out to me.

Friday 6 February 1874

Finish my alapacca dress. James take the children to school, salt meat &c. There is to be a Masquerade at the New Hall this evening. Oh, how I would like to go; but alas! I fear my days of pleasure are all in the past, yet I can not complain, for when I look around me, and behold so many who have far less privileges than I, I can but say – all is well. and our children. it is pure happiness to see them happy and growing up to man & woman-hood virtuous and pure knowing no hatred – may they ever be as innocent and loveing as now – snow

I immediately caught on to the concept of the Masquerade and Emily’s lament for missing the pleasure.  It is in her reflection that she has the wisdom to see pleasure in other things like her children.  Emily writes this passage at age 35, with clarity of age.  I still wondered about the Masquerade and what kind of party it would be in the small town of Manchester, Iowa, in 1874.  To me the concept of a masquerade is associated with two things, The Phantom of the Opera and Mardi Gras.  While Phantom started as a serial in France in the first decade of the 20th it is not made popular until film and stage adaptations bring it into the mainstream.  That left Mardi Gras.  I wondered how long what I thought was just one city’s street festival had been celebrated.

The timeline of Carnival and Mardi Gras tradition stretched back much further than I anticipated.  My search started at and moved on from there. From what I’ve gathered, Carnival is a season to celebrate excess and lavishness before the austerity of Lent begins in the Christian tradition on Ash Wednesday. It has traditionally been marked by debauchery and this was true even in Victorian times, though by scale it was more coy in the celebrations of the 19th century.

Mardi Gras celebrations seem to have begun as early as New Orleans was incorporated as an outpost. Many French traditions were brought to the colony, but the tradition of Mardi Gras transformed on its own. As early as 1837, mule-drawn carriages were parading to celebrate the spirit of Carnival.  In the post-Civil War New Orleans, Mardi Gras traditions continued to build.  Organization came in 1872 when Russian royalty actually visited the city during Mardi Gras.  At that time the Rex Organization formed (  It still exists today.  During Victorian times, members of various krewes (carnival clubs and organization) paraded through the streets threw lavish invitation-only masquerade balls.  (Even these invitations have become historic memorabilia)  At these balls a King and Queen of Mardi Gras are announced.  Rex has records from the 1900 ball that state the theme of “Terpsichore” for revelry of 1900. Captain Thomas J. Woodward and Rosalie Febiger were crowned King and Queen that year. This tradition of royalty dates back to 1872 with the organization. To look at the old records or find out more, visit the website above.

It’s hard to imagine that grand of a Masquerade ball taking place in Manchester, Iowa.  Yet Iowans were aware of Mardi Gras and the celebrations by the turn of the century.  We have authors like Mark Twain to thank for spreading the word.  In his memior Life on the Mississippi (published 1883), Twain depicts a scene of Mardi Gras in drawn form and has this to say;

This Mardi-Gras pageant was the exclusive possession of New Orleans until recently. But now it has spread to Memphis and St. Louis and Baltimore. It has probably reached its limit. It is a thing which could hardly exist in the practical North; would certainly last but a very brief time; as brief a time as it would last in London. For the soul of it is the romantic, not the funny and the grotesque. Take away the romantic mysteries, the kings and knights and big-sounding titles, and Mardi-Gras would die, down there in the South. The very feature that keeps it alive in the South–girly-girly romance–would kill it in the North or in London. Puck and Punch, and the press universal, would fall upon it and make merciless fun of it, and its first exhibition would be also its last. (Chapter 46)

Perhaps Iowa is much too practical of a place for Mardi Gras festivities to have taken place, though with the steamboats moving frequently too and from New Orleans they would have been aware of the festivities.  Twain thought the spectacle something that everyone should witness.  He writes in a letter to Pamela Moffett from New Orleans in March 1859, “It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.” (Mark Twain Project)

Perhaps we should all take Mr. Twain’s advice and journey this week to New Orleans to help Rex celebrate his 150th birthday, and take in the traditions of Mardi Gras that have carried on through generations.

Read more posts on the LHF Blog


19th Century Leisure   Then and Now


  • Kate says:

    Great post! I had no idea Masquerades were part of Mardi Gras celebrations in Iowa. If 35 year old Emily thought she was past her Masquerade days, I wonder who went and what they wore.

    • Kate – I found it really interesting that Mardis Gras went back that far as well. It is difficult to say if Emily’s masquerade was actually a celebration of Mardi Gras because most of the information I found on the celebration was in New Orleans, but thanks to Mark Twain, Iowans were at least aware of the holiday. Thanks for reading!

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