BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It wasn’t a lack of revelry that ended Birmingham’s Mardi Gras: it was the bitter cold.
Beginning in 1886, just 15 years after the city’s founding, Birmingham’s German Society organized Mardi Gras festivities in the Magic City for the first time, according to contemporaneous press accounts.
“The first Mardi Gras and masquerade ball given under the auspices of the German Society was a success,” The Birmingham Age reported. “Yesterday the morning trains brought large crowds to the city, and by noon the streets were thronged with residents and visitors.”
The first Mardi Gras parade in the city included around two dozen floats, the paper reported, nearly all of which were sponsored by local businesses — the first being, of course, an ode to a Birmingham brewery. Following were floats featuring ice sculptures (by Birmingham Ice Works), butchers at work (by the local butchery), and “a comical scene of a man being shaved” (by the local barber), among others.
Also part of the parade were various bicyclists, city officials, and a steam-powered sausage grinder, according to reports.
Despite the successful debut of carnival in the Magic City, Mardi Gras would not return to Birmingham until a decade later in 1896, when a hotel owner and a group of his associated brought back the event to spur tourism in the city, according to the Birmingham Public Library.
The king of Birmingham’s renewed Mardi Gras was crowned “Rex Vulcan I” — a full four decades before the statue of the Roman god was installed atop Red Mountain.
That year, it quickly became clear that the temperate conditions that graced Mobile and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities couldn’t be guaranteed hundreds of miles north in Birmingham.
“One participant in the 1896 Mardi Gras parade recalled that the ‘boughs of the trees were weighted down with snow and ice’ and the Mardi Gras king ‘had to wear his overcoat over his handsome costume and the queen in low neck and short sleeve had to wear her furs to keep warm,'” according to “Birmingham’s Ill-Fated Mardi Gras,” a report by James L. Bagget with the Birmingham Public Library.
In spite of the cold, tens of thousands of revelers crowded Birmingham’s streets on Mardi Gras day, according to press accounts.
Press accounts from the time certainly do not reflect the totality of Mardi Gras in the city. Photos archived by the Birmingham Public Library show, for example, African-Americans on foot at the front and back of a float topped by four white, bearded men. None of the press accounts reviewed by CBS 42 included or even alluded to Black experiences during Mardi Gras at the time — nearly a century before the city would pass desegregation ordinances covering places of public accommodation. (Mobile, for its part, still hasn’t legally desegregated its Mardi Gras festivities. New Orleans did so only in 1991.)
Birmingham’s Mardi Gras was held again in the years following the 1896 revamp, but in 1899, the cold became too much. That year, nearly the entire U.S. was blanketed in snow in what would become known as the Great Blizzard. February of 1899 would go down as “one of the most significant cold outbreaks to ever affect the United States,” according to meteorologists.
In Birmingham, just a few days before Fat Tuesday, a foot of snow fell on the city. The temperatures reached as low as -10 degrees in Birmingham, records show. That bitter cold led to the delay of that year’s festivities, which would ultimately take place in May. It had become clear, though, that Birmingham’s carnival couldn’t consistently keep out the cold, and the festivities’ future was permanently cut short.