Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Cotton Carts and Mardi Gras - a History and Etymology of Parade "Floats"



Cotton Carts and Mardi Gras – a History and Etymology of Parade “Floats”

Why is a Parade Float Called a “Float”? 

New York City’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade, two pillars of American pop-culture, book-end the Holiday Season with their parade float-flotillas drifting leisurely down Broadway or Colorado Boulevard.  And every year, someone in the crowd wonders why they are called “floats.”  One obvious candidate reason is that a well-made float appears to float down the street.  While this imagery may have been in the minds of some people who adopted the word as it spread further away from its original home and meaning; it was not the origin of the word in the place where it first took root.  A parade “float” was named after a type of flat-bed wagon used in the cotton trade in New Orleans – wagons that were also used to carry Mardi Gras floats in post-Civil War New Orleans.  As Mardi Gras spread throughout the South, and eventually much further, the word “float” went along with it; and the distinction between the name of the wagon and the entire assembly quickly blurred.  By the mid-1880s, the word, “float,” in the modern sense of a parade float, was common and well-known throughout the United States.

New Orleans’ “Floats” or “Cotton Floats”


The float is a vehicle peculiar to the cotton cities, being a long, low, and very strong wagon, drawn usually by a splendid pair and a leading mule, and driven by a darky, who stands erect, as proud of his team, its harness, and its obedience as Captain Leathers is of the Natchez steamboat.

“Cotton: From the Plough to the Loom,” W. M. Burwell, Part III, Harper’s Weekly, Volume 27, Number 1386, July 14, 1883, page 446.  

“Cotton floats” or, simply, “floats” were long, narrow flat-bed wagons with front wheels that were significantly smaller than the rear wheels; precisely the type of wagon suitable for carrying a parade float.  Although frequently referred to as, “cotton floats,” floats were also used to haul other types of cargo, including, for example, “[r]ope, barrels, tobacco, hay and other produce.”[i]  These “floats” were so common, and considered so typical of New Orleans, that the Continent Stereoscopic View Company included a 3-D image of a New Orleans cotton float in its series, Descriptive Views of the American Continent:

If your screen is big enough and your eyes good enough; relax your eyes and focus beyond your screen - you might be able to see a Cotton Float in 3-D
 

I do not know how long such wagons had been known as “floats.”  The earliest example that I could find of “float,” in the sense of a wagon (in the United States) is from 1867:

Runaway Team.

Two mules attached to a float became frightened yesterday morning about ten o-clock, while on Common street, and ran away.  The driver, James Polk, tried to check them but lost his footing and, fell from the float with such force as to break one of his legs.  The wounded man was taken to the Charity hospital.

New Orleans Republican, June 11, 1867, page 1.

It is not clear precisely how or why the word, “float,” came to be used in New Orleans and other cotton cities, but there are a few possibilities to consider.  A few dictionaries list some pre-1860s wagon-related senses of “float,”[ii] although most of those seem to have been obscure, or even obsolete, by the 1860s.  I could not find any such use in periodicals, books, or newspapers published in the United States. 

The most relevant usage I have seen is from a description of crowds gathering for the Irish Repeal Meeting at Tara in October 1843:

The local muster headed by its local band immediately took its place in the procession, on horseback or in vehicles.  Wagons, capacious “floats” brought from the city, and the country carts used in agriculture, were all employed and were all found barely sufficient to accommodate the people.

Charles Gavan Duffy, Young Ireland: A Fragment of Irish History. 1840-1850, London, Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1880, page 345.[iii] 

Assuming that the excerpt from the Repeal Meeting accurately reflects pre-1860 usage of, “float” (which there is no particular reason to doubt; although it is by no means certain[iv]), it is possible that the word “float,” as applied to flat-bed wagons in New Orleans, might be part of the same tradition. 

Another intriguing possibility suggested itself to me while researching this piece.  New Orleans “cotton floats” look nearly identical to a type of wagon used by during the Civil War; “French-style” pontoon (or float) wagons.[v]  Pontoon (or float) wagons were long, narrow flat-body wagons with front wheels significantly smaller than the rear wheels; precisely the type of wagons suitable for carrying a parade float:

Pontoon wagon and boat, 50th New York Engineers, Rappahannock Station, Va., March, 1864 (Library of Congress)


Souvenir of New Orleans and the Exposition, New York, Willemann Bros., 1885.
Pontoon wagon train.

Pontoon bridge.
 

The similarity between cotton floats and pontoon (float) wagons jumped right out at me; and the association of each with the word “float” is at least eye-brow raising.  There were, in fact, many pontoon wagons in the New Orleans and Louisiana region during the Civil war;[vi] and some of them were likely converted to civilian service.  An advertisement for one auction of surplus military goods, for example, listed "30 pontoon wagons" for sale.

New Orleans Republican, March 10, 1868, page 3.
    

Although, perhaps the similarity can be explained away by the fact that all sorts of wagons from the period had similar had flat-beds and wheels of different size. I do not know; I am not a wagon historian and have not been able to find images of other similar wagons from the period.  The lack of evidence of pre-1860s use of “float,” in the sense of a wagon also floats the question of whether there might be some connection; if the usage were related to an earlier, British term, you might expect to see at least some evidence of it in the record.  The evidence may be there; I just haven't found it.  

But wherever the name came from, “floats” or “cotton floats,” played a significant role in the operation of New Orleans’ thriving cotton trade.  

Soard's New Orleans City Directory 1883


Nevertheless, some people viewed the floats as an annoying and dangerous public nuisance:

The dreadful accident which has resulted in the death of an estimable and beautiful young lady, Miss Durel, should serve as a warning to the police and city authorities to execute rigidly the ordinances which provide that vehicles driving in line through the streets shall keep a distance of twenty feet apart, and which prohibit furious driving on the crowded thoroughfares.

Unfortunately the ordinances alluded to have been permitted to become dead letters, and we have, time and again, noticed long processions of loaded cotton floats driven so close together that it was impossible for an active man to cross a street between them, while everybody is familiar with the sight of heavy cotton floats and drays being driven at break-neck speed over the square block pavements, to the imminent danger of life, and to the everlasting injury of the tympanums of everybody’s ears.

The New Orleans Bulletin, June 20, 1874, page 2.

Many of the early references to “floats” relate to reports of injuries, arrests, or both:

Two mules attached to a float became frightened yesterday morning about ten o’clock, while on Common street, and ran away.  The driver, James Polk, tried to check them but lost his footing and, fell from the float with such force as to break one of his legs.  The wounded man was taken to Charity hospital.

New Orleans Republican, June 11, 1867, page 1.

Officer Maguire reported at the station, yesterday afternoon, that a colored man, name unknown, employed as driver of a float, No. 665, struck a lady with a piece of stone while on Poydras street.  Upon the approach of the officer, the negro ran away, leaving his float and horse to be taken to the pound.

The New Orleans Crescent, December 18, 1868 (Morning Edition), page 1.

A float, (No. 47) drawn by two mules, came in violent collision with one of the city railroad cars on Poydras street about two o’clock yesterday.  The driver, seeing the damage he had done, made good his escape, leaving the mules and float to be taken by Officer Maguire to the First Precinct station.

The New Orleans Crescent, March 16, 1869 (Morning Edition), page 1.

John Moore, driver of float No. 504, was arrested yesterday, by Officer Phillips, for cruelty to his team. 

New Orleans Republican, November 23, 1870, page 5.

A description of the cotton industry in Harper’s Weekly (1883), reported on a bright spot in post-Civil War race relations:

More recently the relations between the white and colored races have been so well re-adjusted that the colored men have an association [of float drivers] which parades in the same procession with the white men’s association, and they constitute a common force upon all questions of wages or hours of work.

“Cotton: From the Plough to the Loom,” W. M. Burwell, Part III, Harper’s Weekly, Volume 27, Number 1386, July 14, 1883, page 446.

The “ku-klux” float in Memphis’ 1872 Mardi Gras parade (discussed further below), however, revealed a darker side.

“Floats” in Parades

The earliest reference I could find to a “float” or “cotton float” carrying a decorative display in a parade is from New Orleans in 1868.  Surprisingly, perhaps, it was not a Mardi Gras parade – it was a political rally:

The procession was provided with a pretty yawl, schooner-rigged, and manned by a bevy of neat little girls attired in white.  The boat was mounted on a cotton float, and received considerable admiration.  After the election the yawl will be found serviceable to transport Seymour, Blair & Co. up a saline stream.[vii]

New Orleans Republican, August 30, 1868, page 5. 

A description of earlier, decidedly non-PC Mardi Gras traditions, suggests that the word “float” may not yet have been in use in 1861.  The Civil War was only a couple months away, and the newly elected president was ripe for satire:

Mardi-Gras.

Yesterday being a bright and beautiful day, the Mardi-gras spirit of merriment and deviltry was effulgent all over the city – from the river to the swamp, from the barracks to the stock landing.

The little boys and girls reveled as usual in cheap masks and fancy costumes, and pelted each other and the darkeys and loafers with flour, according to the usual custom.  The Cyprians [(prostitutes)] and their masculine rowdy companions took full advantage of the license accorded to them on this one day of the three hundred and sixty-five, and whilst amusing the town by their outlandish and grotesque costumes and processions and antics, doubtless enjoyed themselves according to their fancies – nobody envying them their enjoyment.

There were many laughable groups in wagons – n[-word] minstrels, clowns, harlequins, horrible beasts, devils, and so on, and some extraordinary procession on foot.  In the early part of the day a band of n[-word] minstrels, playing n[-word] music, marched around, having at their head a comical effigy of Old Abe Lincoln, riding a rail of his own splitting.  Old Abe’s “express wagon” was another show which thoroughly amused all who saw it.

New Orleans Daily Crescent, February 13, 1861 (Morning Edition), page 1.

In 1870, there was a band-wagon, horses and “platform cars;” – but no “floats;” at least not by that name:

Horses in Yesterday’s Procession. – We noticed some of Colonel Ames’ circus horses carrying riders in the procession, also his large band-wagon, kindly loaned for the occasion by the owner. . . .

Coroner Roche, marshal’s aid, rode the animal that carried Comus Mardi Gras.
The ten beautiful grays which drew Louisiana’s steamer, circus pets, were universally admired.  They looked as fine in harness as in a ring, carrying spangled riders.

New Orleans Republican, March 5, 1870, page 5.

Mardi Gras.

Last Tuesday was celebrated with the revelry usual, we understand, in this city, as it is in many cities in continental Europe. . . . In the evening “The Mystick Crewe of Comus” passed through the streets in procession on large platform cars, with music and lights.

The design was a good one, and was carried out with good taste.  It was a representation of the history of Louisiana at different periods from 1539 to 1815, in statuary.

The Morning Star and Catholic Messenger (New Orleans, Louisiana), March 6, 1870 (Morning Edition), page 4.  Accounts of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama also referred to “platform cars” in 1870.

I did not find the word “float” used in association with Mardi Gras parades until 1872:

THE THIRD DIVISION, comprising all maskers in vans, floats, milk-carts and other public vehicles, will form on Camp street, the right resting on Canal street.

New Orleans Republican, February 11, 1872, page 4.   




The word “float” appeared regularly and often in accounts of Mardi Gras beginning in 1873, and later.
The debut of Rex, the King of Carnival, in 1872 may have laid the groundwork for bigger, more elaborate parades and an increasing need for more, bigger and stronger wagons, like “cotton floats” in the parades.  


REX

Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans are the work of a number of distinct societies known as, “Krewes.”  The Granddaddy of the Mardi Krewes is the Mystik Krew of Comus.  King Comus, and his band of underworld followers, made their debut in 1857; raising Mardi Gras in New Orleans to a much grander scale:

“Mistick Krewe of Comus.”

This “krewe,” concerning whose identity and purposes there had been such tortures of curiosity and speculation, made their debut before the public in a very unique and attractive manner.  They went through the streets at 9 o’clock with torchlights, about as much resembling a deputation from the lower regions as the mind could possibly conceive.  The masks displayed every fantastic idea of the fearful and horrible, whilst their effect was softened down by the richness and beauty of the costumes, and the evident decorum of the devils inside.

New Orleans Daily Crescent, February 26, 1857, page 1.

The “krewe” then put on a show at the Gaiety Theater featuring a series of tableaux based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, followed by a grand ball.  The Krewe became a permanent fixture in New Orleans Mardi Gras culture; and continues to this day.

But the Krewe was only one of many groups that held their own, separate parades, balls and other entertainments.  Although Mardi Gras was celebrated citywide, the “city” did not organize a citywide event.

That changed, however, in 1872 when Rex, the King of Carnival, enlisted the obeisance and obedience of the Mayor, the police, and the local militia to organize the city's various, independent organizations, large and small, into one, unified parade:



Rex issued several edicts (including the order of the procession shown earlier), organizing a unified, official Mardi Gras to his demanding royal specifications – state and city officials played along:







This is the same year in which Rex is said to have selected purple, green and gold as the official Mardi Gras colors[viii], in honor of a visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, whose family colors were purple, green and gold.


Perhaps the bigger parade, bigger crowd, and increased visibility inspired or required the various Krewes to mount a bigger, more spectacular parade – with “floats.”  


Parade Floats

Early accounts of “floats” in Mardi Gras parades refer to displays being carried on the “floats” or “cotton floats” – they did not refer to the entire assembly, wagon and display, as a “float”:

The Pack.  This ancient body represented Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man, namely:” the infant, the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the old man, and, last scene of all in this strange, eventful history, second childishness, from the play “As You Like It,” second act.  Each age formed a tableau on the requisite number of level cotton floats, all the members being dressed in appropriate costumes, presenting a novel sight.

New Orleans Republican, February 26, 1873, page 1.

Mardi Gras. – The annual Mardi Gras festivities were celebrated with more than usual magnificence this year. . . . One of the features of the procession was the Royal Navy, which was borne along the streets on large floats. 

The Morning Star and Catholic Messenger (New Orleans, Louisiana), March 2, 1873, page 1. 

“The Pack.” In consequence of an edict from Rex, the usual Mardi Gras parade did not take place in daylight, which prevented New Orleans paying a compliment to generous Boston.  The Pack intended to illustrate a page in Boston’s early history, that is re-enacting her tea party.  A full rigged vessel was to be put on cotton floats, and men, attired as Indians, were to throw the taxed tea overboard, while British seamen stood by in amazement looking at the proceeding.

New Orleans Republican, February 10, 1875, page 1.

Mardi Gras was not restricted to New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.  In 1872, the city of Memphis started its own city-wide Mardi Gras tradition.[ix]  A description of the festivities (from an article published in 1875) illustrates the open and widespread tolerance for violent racist terrorism of that time and place:

Another float was occupied by representative kuklux from every southern State, who were enacting the scenes alleged to have taken place in South Carolina.  They were in the act of executing a negro, according to Nast’s pictures and as described by the trustworthy correspondents of the Cincinnati press.

Memphis Daily Appeal (Tennessee), February 9, 1875, page 2.

They may have looked like these "Ku-Klux" who were arrested in Mississippi in 1871.


A contemporary account of Mardi Gras, 1872, in Memphis described the wide variety of costumes worn by revelers – the “ku-klux” costumes were considered comical:

Many of the costumes were exceedingly rich and were gotten up in a costly style.  The great majority, however, tended toward the comic order, representing negroes, heathen Chinese, monkeys, soldiers, ku-klux, etx.

Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), February 14, 1872, page 3.

But in 1872, the real ku-klux were active in the region, and not very comical; no one was safe:

Ku-Kluxing a School Teacher.  There has been a case of Ku-Kluxing near Vienna, in this State.  A white teacher in charge of a colored school was taken out by six men and severely whipped.  After the whipping he was notified to leave the Parish before the next Tuesday morning, or he would be shot.

New Orleans Republican, February 26, 1873, page 8.

It is not surprising then, that some people were frightened of Mardi Gras, at least on occasion:

A gay party of masked Mardi Gras celebrators promenaded the streets and visited a number of citizens Tuesday night.  We heard of one or two negroes who precipitately “took to their heels,” thinking the Kuklux were after them.

The Milan Exchange (Milan, Tennessee), February 15, 1877, page 1.

Reconstruction was still underway in 1872, and many of the places terrorized by the Ku-Klux were still occupied by Federal troops; giving hope that the menace could be wiped out.  Sadly, the troops may have pulled out too early; leaving the door open for the radical, extremist, religious racist terrorists to impose Sharia Law “Jim Crow” segregation, and prompting a mass migration of refugees northward; leaving millions behind to live in constant fear of violence and reprisal.

The use of “float,” in association with Mardi Gras vehicles, continued.  Over time, the distinction between float-as-wagon and float-as-display began to blur:

[At the Memphis Mardi Gras festival,] scenes of later days in America are represented.  There were nineteen scenes or floats, each of which is a complete representation of some historical fact, most of them having connection with the discovery of America and explanations in it.

Daily Argus (Rock Island Illinois), February 10, 1875, page 1.

Last night the Knights of Momus made up in splendor for the lapse of a year, and marched through the streets with one of the finest pageants ever seen here.  It is understood by those who have not seen these processions, that the figurate characters are mounted on floats and drawn by horses and mules.  

New Orleans Republican, February 25, 1876, page 1.

King Momus was astride of an immense bucking ram, on a float drawn by four mules, and attended by Pantaloon and Punchinello, Count de Noses and a royal vale de chamber. . . .  The float of Rex was drawn by four mules, and as before stated, bore an enormous bucking goat; on which the king was mounted.

Memphis Daily Appeal, February 29, 1876, page 1.

The word “float” was pulled for the ride when Mardi Gras celebrations spread out into new cities.  Some of those cities may have been places where wagons known as “floats” were unfamiliar; contributing, perhaps, to a further blurring of the line between the wagon and the entire assembly:

At Little Rock.

Little Rock, February 29 – Mardi Gras was celebrated here to-day in grand style.  There were about one thousand masks in the procession, besides numerous floats representing various scenes.

At Cincinnati.

Cincinnati, February 29. – The Mardi-Gras festivities to-day passed off without any serious disturbance. . . .  The pageant in the evening represented scenes in the history of America, and were exhibited on sixteen floats.

At Louisville.

Louisville, February 29. – Mardi Gras was celebrated here to-day.  The procession in the day consisted of floats portraying historical scenes and characters.

Memphis Daily Appeal, March 1, 1876, page 1.

A report from Dallas, Texas, about the Mardi Gras festivities there in 1877, appears to use alternately use two senses of “float” – the wagon or the display:

A building representing a school house was erected upon a large float, entirely built of doors, sash and blined, with seats and desks inside.
. . .
Hamilton & Meyers house and sign painters, occupied a prominent position in the procession, using their large float to represent a paint shop.
. . .
[B]ehind the lights was a large reflector, which threw the light on the float behind, and also on a transparency which gave the theme of the float that followed.

The Dallas Daily Herald, April 5, 1877, page 8.

In time, the word started popping up in places outside the lower-Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.   

In 1881, a newspaper in Vermont printed a detailed description of the look and construction a Mardi Gras “float”:

Low trucks, especially for this purpose, are prepared, and upon this is a platform, the sides shutting well down over the wheels.  On the platform the tableaux is set, the same as might be at a theatre, except that it is so arranged as to be completely seen from any point, and is without background or curtains, and instead of the figures remaining quiet they are most of them in constant motion, every movement being in perfect time with the music of the accompanying bands.  The animals hauling each float (as these platforms are called) are completely enveloped in gorgeous trappings, and are led by grooms in livery.

Orleans County Monitor (Barton, Vermont), July 24, 1882, page 1.

In 1883, Harper’s Weekly, a magazine with a national readership, described the morning after Mardi Gras in New Orleans:

After the pageant has gone glimmering, and the whirl of the midnight ball is over, day dawns upon a scene of merry wreck.  Streets are strewn with fragments of brightly colored paper, tatters of tinsel, remnants of torn decorations; perhaps some gorgeous wagon, or “float,” disabled during the great review, may be seen lying abandoned at some point of the route, like a gold-freighted galleon astrand.

“New Orleans in Carnival Garb,” Harper’s Weekly, Volume 27, Number 1366, February 24, 1883, page 122. 

New Orleans had some pretty elaborate “floats” in Mardi Gras of 1883; the article that described the abandoned hulks on the day-after provided images of two of them in their full-glory – including their illumination by electric light:





Mardi Gras “floats” reached the West Coast by 1884:

Floats for the Mardi Gras Festival [in San Francisco] next Tuesday evening are being built, and promise to be very attractive.

Sacramento Daily Record-Union (California), February 23, 1884, page 4.

By 1885, when a newspaper in Cairo Illinois touted the, “beautiful parade Floats representing the merchants of the city” in their upcoming Fourth of July parade, the transformation of the word from just the wagon to the whole shebang[x] seems to have been complete.  

The word appears to have been well-known and standard by 1889, when it was used profusely, without explanation and not set-off by quotation marks, throughout a book detailing celebrations in Philadelphia on the occasion of the Centennial of the United States Constitution.




Conclusion

Floats everywhere, including the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, The Tournament of Roses Parade, and your local high school homecoming parade, all owe their name to “cotton floats” of old New Orleans.  New Orleans’ Mardi Gras owes its success, in large part, to the Mystick Krewe of Comus who pushed the boundaries of extravagance in 1857, and Rex, the King of Carnival who organized the city's various “krewes” into a unified parade in 1872.  As the popularity of Mardi Gras grew and spread across the South and beyond during the 1870s, displays on “floats” in parades were slowly transformed into “parade floats” as we know them today.  By the mid-1880s, the word, “float,” in the sense of a parade float, was common and widespread across the entire United States.

All Hail Rex!!!



[i] New Orleans Republican, November 22, 1870, page 5.
[ii] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition (FLOAT: 13. One of the wooden frames attached to the sides, front, or back of a wagon or cart to increase the carrying capacity. 1686 Plot Staffordsh. 354 A Cart that had its floats supported, with standards erected upon the ends of the Axles. 1887 in Kent Gloss.  14. A. A low-bodied, crank-axled cart, used for carrying heavy articles, live stock, etc. 1866 Daily Tel. 23 Feb. 3/4.  The pikes and handles were removed in a float in the presence of a large crowd. 1891 Sheffield Gloss. Suppl., Float, a deep cart . . . used for carrying pigs to market); Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, Volume 1, 1857 (Floats, s. The wooden frames that hang over the sides of a wagon. East); The Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing, and Technical Terms, 1858 (Float, . . . a coal cart . . . . ).
[iii] American Dialect Society Listserve, September 4, 2011 (Identified by Victor Steinbok).
[iv] Although the author claimed that the excerpt in question was based on contemporaneous notes from 1843, care should always be taken in using later-published texts to establish an earlier usage. See, e.g. Peter Reitan, Dude: its earliest attestation thus far (1879) is unreliable, and Peter Reitan, Dude: Another supposed 1879 source of dude was written later: 1885, both in Comments on Etymology, Volume 43, number 8, May 2014 (four purported pre-1883 attestations of ‘dude’ have been proven to have been published after 1883).
[v] The website for the Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp No. 273 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has a good history of pontoon bridges and description of the various types of pontoon bridges used during the Civil War.
[vi] Bennie McRae, Jr., Lest We Forget: African American Military History (97th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry (Corps De Afrique, United States Colored Volunteers, 3rd Regiment, Engineers) were in charge of a pontoon wagon train and built several pontoon bridges during service in Louisiana); Joseph P. Blessington, The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division, New York, Lange, Little and Co., 1875 (recounts numerous pontoon bridges, Union and Confederate, in and around Louisiana during the Civil War).
[vii] The expression, “up a saline stream,” is a humorous rewording of the expression, “up Salt River,” a common expression at the time.  The modern version of the expression is more likely to be expressed something like, “up S[al]t Creek.”
[viii] “Mardi Gras History,” MardiGrasNewOrleans.com.
[ix] Mardi Gras had been earlier celebrated by Italian-Americans in Memphis. See, e.g., Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), February 22, 1871, page 3 (Our Italian fellow-citizens celebrated Mardi Gras last evening . . . .”).
[x] For more on the history and origin of the expression, “the whole shebang,” see my earlier post on, The History and Etymology of “Shebang.”

No comments:

Post a Comment