For most Americans, this time of year isn’t anything special. But for many of us here on the Gulf Coast, this is the happiest time of the year: Mardi Gras.
Just in time for Fat Tuesday, we’ve received a special gift to celebrate the season. The fine folks at the University of West Florida archives and West Florida History Center have given us an exclusive look at some very rare artist drawings for Pensacola’s first Mardi Gras floats at the turn of the 20th century.
Literally meaning “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is the culmination of a weeks-long Carnival season that ends on Ash Wednesday. It’s that period of revelry prior to the solemn and penitential season of Lent, was first celebrated in Pensacola during the 19th century. Alongside New Orleans and Mobile, the Pensacola tradition is among the oldest celebrated in the country.
As early as 1838, Pensacolians donned in masks and attired in costumes celebrated on Shrove Tuesday. It was not until 1900 however, that the first organized Mardi Gras celebration was held in America’s 1st Settlement.
While impromptu foot and horseback parades had been a regular Pensacola occurrence for decades, it was in 1900 that the first “krewe” — private groups with semi-mythological namesakes that organize thematic parades — was established.
These are some of the sketches by famed Pensacola artist Theodore Weber, who was a Mardi Gras float designer in Pensacola in the early 1900s.
The float designs depict legendary themes including Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades; the Aurora Borealis; the Genii of the Fountains, Blessed with an Abundance of Water; and Inferno, based on Dante.
Weber was born in Cologne, Germany and immigrated to America in 1870 by way of New York City. Trained as a member of an opera troupe, he moved to Pensacola around 1882 and worked as an artist for the rest of his life.
In Pensacola, he excelled as a painter. Some of his work includes designing the interior of the Tarragona theater, Redeemer Lutheran Church, and the landmark Pensacola Opera House at Government and Adams streets.
UWF Archivist Dean DeBolt says more research will be needed to determine if the floats were actually built but several 1904 newspaper clippings note a float described as “The Naiads, Guardians of the Springs, with water gushing from a rock with a great frog and 2 snails sat on a mossy bank” which matches in concept, at least one of the drawings.
Either way, these incredible drawings show just how great of an artist Weber was.