The Earliest Known Footage of New Orleans Discovered: See a Mardi Gras Parade in 1898

“Amer­i­ca has only three great cities: New York, San Fran­cis­co, and New Orleans. Every­where else is Cleve­land.” This quo­ta­tion has been repeat­ed for decades — not least, unsur­pris­ing­ly, in New Orleans. I saw and heard it often on my last trip there, and though attri­bu­tions var­ied, most cred­it­ed the remark to either Mark Twain or Ten­nessee Williams. Accord­ing to Quote Inves­ti­ga­tor, no his­tor­i­cal evi­dence points to either man as the line’s orig­i­na­tor, though “the notion that only three cities in the U.S. were com­mend­able or dis­tinc­tive has a very long his­to­ry.”

In 1895, for instance, the then-pop­u­lar come­di­enne Ver­nona Jar­beau said that “there are only three cities in the Unit­ed States that I would care to live in, and one of them is San Fran­cis­co.” But she said it, one should note, to a San Fran­cis­co news­pa­per; who’s to say the crowd-pleas­ing instinct would­n’t have moti­vat­ed a trans­po­si­tion of her pref­er­ence else­where in Amer­i­ca? New Orleans, then in exis­tence for more than half a cen­tu­ry, pos­sessed an even longer-estab­lished dis­tinc­tive­ness. The embell­ished gal­leries of the French Colo­nial build­ings in the 1898 film clip above, iden­ti­fy the city at a glance.

Even more New Orlean­ian, of course, is what’s going on in the street: the city’s sig­na­ture fes­tiv­i­ty, the Mar­di Gras parade. “The film is not only the old­est mov­ing pic­ture of a New Orleans Mar­di Gras; it’s the old­est film of New Orleans,” writes’s Jane Reck­er. Recent­ly redis­cov­ered in Ams­ter­dam’s Eye Film­mu­se­um, the two-minute clip shows us — on detail-absorb­ing 68-mil­lime­ter film — that “one float is pineap­ple-themed, with rid­ers wear­ing hats shaped like pieces of pineap­ple and vests resem­bling pineap­ple skin. Anoth­er fea­tures the Rex, the ‘King of the Car­ni­val,’ sit­ting atop a float dec­o­rat­ed with tas­seled globes.”

“Con­tem­po­rary view­ers will sure­ly rec­og­nize the film’s parade as a Mar­di Gras cel­e­bra­tion, though the event fea­tures some dis­tinct dif­fer­ences from the one that takes over the Big Easy’s streets today,” writes Art­net’s Sarah Cas­cone. “There are, for exam­ple, no beads, no bar­ri­cades, no police. Onlook­ers don suits and top hats and para­sols, a far more for­mal approach than that tak­en by 21st-cen­tu­ry rev­el­ers.” Here in the 2020s their rev­el­ry has been inter­rupt­ed by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, and only this year did New Orleans’ Mar­di Gras parade tra­di­tion resume. Per­haps it’s too much to hope that the dress sense of spec­ta­tors 124 years ago will make a come­back as well.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Only Known Footage of Louis Arm­strong in a Record­ing Stu­dio: Watch the Recent­ly Dis­cov­ered Film (1959)

Some Joy for Your Ears: New Orleans Brass Band Plays Life-Affirm­ing Cov­er of Mar­vin Gaye’s “Sex­u­al Heal­ing”

Louis Arm­strong Remem­bers How He Sur­vived the 1918 Flu Epi­dem­ic in New Orleans

When Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man Joined the Grate­ful Dead Onstage for Some Epic Impro­vi­sa­tion­al Jams: Hear a 1993 Record­ing

The Ser­i­al Killer Who Loved Jazz: The Infa­mous Sto­ry of the Axe­man of New Orleans (1919)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Nina says:

    Me temo que comen­zar el artícu­lo por con algo como “Amer­i­ca has only three great cities: New York, San Fran­cis­co, and New Orleans…” No solo resul­ta des­pre­cia­ble­mente supremacista, sino que con­fir­ma que los esta­dos unidos de améri­ca sim­ple­mente con­sid­er­an que son el puto ombli­go del mun­do. Pues señores, ust­edes que van de cul­tos por la vida, hacen un fla­co favor a la cul­tura en gen­er­al y las dis­tin­tas cul­turas de Améri­ca con tal des­pre­cio por el resto. Améri­ca el Canadá, Méx­i­co, Brasil, Chile, Colom­bia, Argenti­na, Perú, Cos­ta Rica.…. He de seguir? Quiero decir que tal vez no conoz­can google maps, donde pueden com­pro­bar que existe mucha más cul­tura detrás de tan­tos país­es que ust­edes rel­e­gan, que la cul­tura que proviene de sus “esta­dos unidos de améri­ca”… País retró­ga­do que solo sigue apor­tan­do cosas com pro­hibir el abor­to, matan­zas en serie y pelícu­las donde las armas, las explo­siones, la destruc­ción, el acoso esco­lar etc, son siem­pre los pro­tag­o­nistas.… Me encan­taría una rec­ti­fi­cación sobre este par­tic­u­lar. Buenos días.
    P. S.- Por supuesto escribir­les en castel­lano es de una lóg­i­ca aplas­tante, dado que es el idioma más habla­do en Améri­ca.

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