The Original Mardi Gras: Mobile, AL
By: Molly McWilliams Wilkins
I get in an argument with someone each year when they say New Orleans is the home of Mardi Gras. Yes, it may host one of the most raucous events, but it’s not where Mardi Gras was started.
That honor belongs to Mobile, Alabama- where my father was born, where his mother was born, and where my family has been a part of the Mardi Gras traditions going back to when they first landed in the port city prior to the Civil War.
(For more on the history of Mardi Gras in Mobile and New Orleans, click here.)
My grandmother, Maria Inge Ryne, recently told me what it was like growing up in Mobile with Mardi Gras. “The parades would go down the streets, and our house was on Government Street. My daddy was an OOM, a member of the Order of the Myths, and so their float would come by our house.”
“People on the floats would throw beads and doubloons, and I remember as a little girl people diving after the doubloons but sometimes they would land near me and I would just put my feet over them and not move!”
I should note, with some pride, that the Order of the Myths were one of the earliest secret societies formed- and the oldest still holding a parade.
However, I didn’t grow up in Mobile, so I’ve always been curious about what it is like to actually be a part of one of these societies? So I talked with Reese McQueen McCurry, aa friend from my hometown who also has roots in Mobile, and whose father and grandfather were members of the Infant Mystics- a society founded just after the one my ancestors were a part of. Here’s what she told me.
“In Mobile, each mystic (secret) organization has its own ball. Everyone dresses in full white tie attire: women in long evening gowns and men in tails. If the organization is a parading one, the members stay in their parading costumes for most of the ball. Most balls begin with some sort of tableau, or presentation, that follows a specific theme for the year.
Tableau from the Infant Mystics ball; photos courtesy Reese McCurry
This theme is planned by the man or woman who ‘leads’ the ball that year. The leading ladies of women’s organizations are often someone who is a member of that organization. The leading ladies of men’s organizations are often a debutante, the debutante aged daughter of one of the members, or one of the wives of the members. It sort of depends on each organization. The oldest and more traditional organizations have a deb or daughter as the leading lady.
Photo courtesy of Reese McCurry
“The decorations for the ball tend be big and over the top–flowers, feathers, large flower containers, props, etc–and gorgeous.”
After the tableau and the presentation of the leading lady, the Mardi Gras court are presented at some of the balls.
“Will, my husband, and I were a part of the court in 2004. At the coronation, the king and queen both wear beautiful trains and gowns and outfits. Most often, these are custom made and have been worked on for months! The members of the court are presented and then the queen is crowned by the king. There is often a dinner or party afterwards,” Reese said.
The train of Reese’s beautiful gown
“Following that, the bands crank up. Some balls have several bands of different genres in different rooms. Some have a single band that plays in the main room. It is basically a big party. Some balls have open bars and some are cash, but bars are everywhere! It’s a lot of fun and frivolity!”
So while Mobile may not be the city you first think of for Mardi Gras, you can see they very much have the traditions of the old South incorporated with this event. I certainly hope that I do not have to have the argument again over who started Mardi Gras first.
I, for one, cannot wait to go and experience it for myself.
Have you been to Mobile’s Mardi Gras?
Molly McWilliams Wilkins is the Digital Content Editor for The Southern Weekend. Portions of this article originally appeared on her website Southern Bon Vivant.