New Orleans has always been a city of Carnival, reveling in the masquerades and dances given before the strictures of Lent. Debuting in 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus transformed Carnival, organizing the revelry and setting the standard for all succeeding Mardi Gras celebrations in the Crescent City. The Comus parades and balls became the highlight of the season, and subsequent krewes, such as Rex, Momus, and Proteus, all followed their example.3
The public parades were for everyone's enjoyment, but only those approved by the krewe were issued invitations to the private ball, and it was forbidden to transfer one's personal invitation to anyone else. Doing so put one at risk of being blacklisted by the krewe.4 Desire to attend the Comus ball was so high that when two of the numbered invitations to the 1877 ball went missing, the krewe posted a notice in the Daily Picayune offering a $2,000 reward for their safe return (approximately $45,000 today).5 As it turned out, the invitations were not used and the reward remained unclaimed.
Several of the early ball invitations were printed with stock designs or engraved in black and white, and color was used economically. As chromolithography advanced, however, krewes began to produce more extravagant and colorful invitations.6 The invitations themselves became masterworks, treasured as much for their artistry as for the opportunity to attend the ball they represented. These invitations were often synchronized with both a dance card (see Fig. 6) and an admit card, which were usually also lithographed and designed to match the theme. In fact, even the envelopes were die-cut into beautiful shapes, such as the crown envelope designed to hold the 1884 Rex invitation (Fig. 7d). These multipiece invitations demanded the collaboration of krewe members, designers, and lithographers.7
Fig. 6. Legends of the Middle Ages dance card by the Krewe of Proteus, 1888.
Krewes often turned to designers in New Orleans. Some of those early artists include Charles Briton, Virginia "Jennie" Wilkinson Wilde, Bror Anders Wikstrom, and Carlotta Bonnecaze (see Figs. 2a, 2b). These designers conceived not only the invitations, but also often the float and costume designs, which were all carefully coordinated.
As the invitations became more elaborate, krewes began to go overseas to have them created. French lithographers such as Appel and Henri Sicard created lavish and delicate invitations of a standard well beyond what was available locally.8 As early as the 1870s, members of Rex were traveling to Paris to order costumes, jewelry, and invitations. In 1895 Rex spent $2,450 on invitations alone, which translates to roughly $69,000 in today's market.9 That was only a small part of their total costs for that season. All in, the tab came to $25,823, or $728,000 in today's dollars. Although most of the work was completed by lithographers and printers in Paris, a krewe would occasionally hire a domestic firm, such as Mayer, Merkel and Ottmann in NewYork, which produced the 1884 Proteus invitation (Figs. 1a, 1b). Figs. 1a, 1b. The Aeneid invitation by the Krewe of Proteus, 1884.
Unfortunately, around the turn of the twentieth century several krewes stopped issuing elaborate invitations and began utilizing simply produced and locally designed cards. Rex was the first to do so, though many of the other krewes followed soon after.10 World War I ended the grandeur of the golden age of Carnival in New Orleans. Today, depending on condition and availability, many of the Carnival invitations from that era fetch hundreds and even thousands of dollars at auction. Prized treasures once again, the resurgence in their popularity will undoubtedly continue to stoke collectors' quests to possess one of these rare miniature masterworks of mystique and magic.
LISSA CAPO is a technical processor with the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection.