Arts & Culture

Watch the Oldest Footage of Mardi Gras

The 1898 film is quite a spectacle—and an exhibition shares more of New Orleans’s most intricate carnival designs

photo: The Rex Organization

A film still from the 1898 Rex parade.
photo: The Rex Organization
A vintage proclamation issued in 1924.

For generations, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been a time when people from all walks come to celebrate life itself. They witness the sheer kaleidoscopic joy of music and merriment; cakes and queens; beads and buzz; costumes and kings; the parades and people.

If you’re intrigued by the spectacle of it all, make time before the end of the year to visit the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, which hosts the exhibition Rex: The 150th Anniversary of the School of Design (through December 11). Part of that exhibition includes a major discovery—the oldest moving picture of New Orleans Mardi Gras. Taken on February 22, 1898, the two-minute film is, in fact, the oldest film ever captured of New Orleans.

The Rex historian Will French debuted this two-minute film clip of the 1898 Rex parade recently discovered in the archives of Eye Filmmuseum, the Dutch national film museum in Amsterdam.

The theme of Mardi Gras that year was Harvest Queens. Six floats appear on film. One is pineapple themed. Another float is ridden by Rex, the “King of the Carnival.” He’s atop a float bedecked in globes. “My jaw dropped,” says James R. Reiss, III, 2022’s Mardi Gras Rex, about seeing the film for the first time. “It’s spectacular.” It proves to him, and countless others, that no matter the time, the circumstances, or the trials and tribulations always present, that “New Orleanians have joie de vivre, a love of life.” 

photo: The Rex Organization
A vintage Rex Ball invitation from 1875.

Founded in 1872 (the old film shows people carrying bell-shaped placards commemorating the Rex Organization’s twentieth anniversary), the Rex Organization is among the most well-known Mardi Gras krewes. The museum exhibition highlights the organization’s history, but most notably its contributions to the visual spectacle of Mardi Gras with costumes, crowns, jewels, gowns, and more. “We come together to celebrate. To unite. To be a part of something greater than us,” Reiss says. “We’re serious about having fun.”

Find more information about the Louisiana State Museum’s exhibition here.