Mobile, founded by Roman Catholics from France in 1702, was home to the first mystic society, or krewe, which held America’s first Mardi Gras celebration in 1704—14 years before New Orleans was even founded.
Most Americans know Mardi Gras as a celebration of feasting, festivals, and exuberant parades, but it took more than a century for the parading to start.
On New Year’s Eve 1830 on their way home from dinner, a group of friends raided Patridge Hardware Store taking rakes, cowbells, and gongs which they used as musical instruments as they paraded through the streets to the mayor’s house where were invited in for breakfast. These fun-loving fellows formed the Cowbellion de Rakin Society which is French for the Cowbell and Rake Society.
By 1840, the Cowbellions added themes with floats to their procession. This was the first Mardi Gras parade in the form we know them today.
Also parading on New Year’s Eve was the Tea Drinkers Society which was formed by a group of teenagers, including Little Joseph Stillwell Cain, later to become Mobile’s most famous native.
Mobile’s 39 parading societies hold their parades in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, but the greatest number are held on the weekend and Monday (Lundi Gras) before. Most of the parades are precursors to the pomp and pageantry of the mystic societies’ ultra-formal white tie balls, which can have Broadway-caliber sets and performances (called “tableaux”), their own kings, queens, and royal courts and up to 6,000 people in attendance.
The kings and queens wear opulent tuxedos and gowns, each with a custom-made train that can reach 21 feet long and weigh up to 75 pounds. The trains may include several yards of velvet, silk, and fur; thousands of Swarovski crystals; precious stones; gold, silver, and platinum lame; leather and lace; rhinestones and glass beads.
Each train costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and is custom-designed to reflect the personality of the newly crowned king or queen, including family crests and Greek society letters. Mobilians spend $33 million on Mardi Gras season, and visitors kick in $200 million more.
Mystic societies tend to be exclusive; one must be a member or be invited by a member to attend most of the balls. But some are open to the public.
The Order of Doves, Mobile’s first African-American mystic society, was formed in 1890 and reborn three years ago as the first truly inclusive mystic society in Mobile history. Anyone—black or white, male or female—can join, and membership is not shrouded in secrecy. This year’s Order of Doves ball, held after a parade on Lundi Gras, is open to the public.
While visitors are encouraged to buy tickets to these public events, any Mobilian will tell you that it’s relatively easy to obtain an invitation to a private ball. With roughly 80 balls per Carnival season and anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000 attendees at each, there are bound to be some seats to fill.
The parades start 18 days before Mardi Gras and are family-friendly—in stark contrast to that other city. Float riders toss doubloons—aluminum coins embossed with the society’s name, year of founding, and emblem on one side and the year of the parade on the other—as well as beads, candies, plastic trinkets, and moon pies. Especially moon pies. Some 3.5 million moon pies will be tossed to the crowd during Carnival.
While every day of Carnival is a spectacle, none is greater than Joe Cain Day. Cain, who brought Mardi Gras celebrations back to Mobile after the Civil War, is honored on the Sunday before Mardi Gras every year with a graveyard procession featuring Cain’s Merry Widows, who dress in 1800s funeral attire and weep and wail for their beloved husband. Once they’ve finished this ritual, the Widows throw black beads and black roses to the crowd and head over to Cain’s original home in the Oakleigh Historic District, where they are invited in for cocktails and bicker over who was his favorite.
In the afternoon, the Mistresses of Joe Cain lead the Joe Cain Procession, also known as the “People’s Parade,” featuring homemade floats made by groups of local friends, families, businesses, churches, and schools. Lasting all afternoon, it is the longest parade of Carnival, and it draws 150,000 participants and onlookers.
Altogether, 1.3 million people take part in Mobile’s Carnival festivities, making it the second-largest community festival in the country. If you’re looking for family-friendly fun with a long and storied history steeped in local traditions, leave that other Mardi Gras to the drunk frat boys and head to Mobile.
Credit: Mardi Gras in Mobile by L. Craig Roberts, The History Press, 2015
In Mobile, Mardi Gras comes with the seasons, a natural phenomenon, an event to be anticipated and enjoyed, but really not considered to be anything unusual. One simply grows up knowing that Mardi Gras will come with the spring.