The mention of Mardi Gras brings to mind ancient rituals and masked revelers in old cities like Mobile and New Orleans. In those places the pre-Lenten carnival has been celebrated in various forms since the early 1700s. But for a few years as the nineteenth century came to a close, the still young city of Birmingham staged its own carnival.
The Magic City’s first Mardi Gras was held March 8, 1886. Sponsored by the local German Society, the "festivities of the day included a mammoth and colorful parade and a grand masquerade ball." The parade of thirty floats snaked through downtown with the carnival king accompanied by the Birmingham police and fire departments and a brass band. The first float, sponsored by a Birmingham brewery, "represented the king of beer seated on a throne of velvet, drinking to the health of the crowd."
Though successful in its first outing, the Mardi Gras tradition was not revived for a decade. In 1896, Emil Lasser, owner of Birmingham's Cosmopolitan Hotel, and a group of associates founded the Birmingham Carnival Society to organize a new Mardi Gras that would attract tourists and their dollars. The king of Birmingham's new Mardi Gras would be called Rex Vulcan I. But while February may be conducive to outdoor revelry in New Orleans or Mobile, February in Birmingham is sometimes not. One participant in the 1896 Mardi Gras parade recalled that the "boughs of the trees were weighted down with snow and ice" and the Mardi Gras king "had to wear his overcoat over his handsome costume and the queen in low neck and short sleeve had to wear her furs to keep warm."
The cold weather did not keep the crowds away, and Birmingham's newspapers estimated that "30,000 to 40,000 people thronged the streets of the city on Mardi Gras Day." The parade featured elaborate floats (some built by a Mobile company well experienced with that’s city's Mardi Gras) depicting scenes from children's stories, mythology and history. The Birmingham Carnival Society's floats included children's characters Jack and Jill, Cinderella, and Humpty Dumpty. The Birmingham Athletic Club float depicted “Samson Destroying the Temple,” and the Schillinger Brewing Company offered “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which one newspaper described as "realistic and worthy of all the commendation given." A ball was held that evening.
The carnival continued through the next two years, but bad weather again in 1899 signaled trouble for Mardi Gras in Birmingham. Three days before the parade, a blizzard left one foot of snow on the city. On Fat Tuesday, thermometers registered nine degrees below zero and the carnival was cancelled. One last parade, a nighttime event, was held in 1900, and the ball continued until 1901. But then it was over. One Birmingham resident of the time observed, "Every February when the Mardi Gras was held, the weather seemed to behave its very worst, and it was really for that reason the carnival committee called it off." Mardi Gras balls, the indoor events, continue to thrive in Birmingham, but the grand outdoor parades have been left to older cities in warmer climates.
By James L. Baggett