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Mardi Gras Mementos Preserved in a Museum

February 05, 1989|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

Did your invitation to the Mardi Gras get lost in the mail? Did the club of revelers called Rex forget to ask you to don a mask and dance?

Don't feel like a social outcast. There is a place in New Orleans where you can arrange to see what you missed. Mardi Gras memorabilia are in the archives of the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center lodged in a clutch of fine houses behind 533 Royal St. in the French Quarter.

The invitations to today's Mardi Gras celebrations are not as lavish as those from the 19th Century, when announcements for the carnival were gilded, intricately cut and even had pop-up surprises.

Some invitations were without words; pictures of kings and crowns signified a royal summons to attend. Opulent invitations from the 1870s and 1880s arrived with scrolls of poetry. All bore the Mardi Gras colors: deep purple, green and gold.

Elaborate Jewelry

That was also the era of elaborate Mardi Gras jewelry. Brooches and pins were designed for the occasion and given as favors to the wives, daughters and friends of the men who were members of the krewes-- clubs that stage the pre-Lenten parades and hoopla.

As I admired the art nouveau designs in the Historic New Orleans Collection, my guide, Elsa Schneider, smiled.

"Whatever was the fashion of the day was reflected in Mardi Gras jewelry," she said. "But New Orleans always seemed to hate to let go of a style, and so they were a few years behind. Art nouveau went out elsewhere about 1910, but here it stayed popular until World War I. Mardi Gras and art nouveau just seem to go together."

In the windows and antique shops along Royal Street I saw elegant examples of art nouveau jewelry: brooches and bracelets with the sinuous lines of snakes or vine tendrils or butterfly wings. Elongated flower stalks and buds were also favored in that period.

Some Mardi Gras traditions have been stomped out by modern safety regulations. In the 1880s King Rex threw nuts, fruits and little toys to the crowd. The county grew. Soon treasured beads of glass and china were being tossed like confetti from the floats. And many were broken.

Plastic Replaces Glass

"Those days could be treacherous," Schneider said. "When people fought over the trinkets, terrible hand injuries resulted."

A few years ago the city outlawed the use of glass beads. Today the baubles are plastic.

Mardi Gras posters and invitations are a small part of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Its maps date to a New World-Old World masterwork drawn in 1513, just 21 years after Columbus came that way. There are letters signed by Napoleon authorizing the transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States, and letters of acceptance signed by Thomas Jefferson.

Thousands of books and paintings, documents and photographs are devoted to city and state history: to the early French and American explorers, to the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, to the Civil War, and to the architectural development of the city, block by block.

The collection spreads through several buildings, including one of the oldest homes in the French Quarter, a Spanish Colonial survivor from 1792. An adjoining 19th-Century town house with splendid furnishings, once the home of the collection's founders, is also open. The houses surround a flagstone courtyard that is lined with potted pomegranates and hidden from the street.

The largest courtyard of the French Quarter is at the Court of Two Sisters restaurant, just a block down Royal Street. A majestic canopy of wisteria shades outdoor tables. As if by decree, in that city of tradition the wisteria blooms deep purple during Mardi Gras.

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