I've been doing some research on the masked balls of New Orleans during the 19th century (it's all related, I assure you.) Historian R. Randall Couch's article "The Public Masked Balls of New Orleans: A Custom of Masque outside the Mardi Gras Tradition." has been a huge help in that endeavor. As with Austin, it's always good to be reminded how little humanity actually changes. A few samples of what I mean. 


The first occurs shortly after the Louisiana Purchase. The Americans are somewhat horrified of the masked balls, and see the institutionalized carousing with colored women (placage) and the whole practice of masking as disreputable. 

One result:

An unfortunate potential for trouble broke out between the French and Anglo-Americans at the regular public ball. Two quadrilles, one French, the other English, formed at the same time. An American, taking offense at something, raised his walking stick at one of the fiddlers. Bedlam ensued. . . . [Claiborne] resorted to persuasion rather than to rigorous measures in order to silence the American, who was a simple surgeon attached to the troops. The French quadrille resumed. The American interrupted it again with an English quadrille and took his place to dance. Someone cried, 'If the women have a drop of French blood in their veins, they will not dance.' Within minutes, the hall was completely deserted by the women.

Eventually the Americans made a temporary peace with the masked balls. But keeping out the riff-raff, and thus hopefully tamping down the violence, was always a problem. The ball hosts took to selling subscriptions--effectively season tickets, as Couch puts it--allowing the subscriber to attend all the balls held during a particular period. This had little effect:

When Karl Bernhard, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar- Eisenach, visited New Orleans in February 1826, he also compared masked balls at the Orleans and the St. Philip Street theaters....Even at the relatively respectable Orleans, he went on, there were quarrels which "commenced in the ballroom with blows, and terminated in the vestibule, with pocket-pistols and kicking, without any interruption from the police." 

At a public masked ball at the St. Philip Street, the grand duke reported that the women present were quadroons, who coquetted with him "in the most subtle and amusing manner." "Pure curiosity," brought him back to the St. Philip Street on another night, but that visit was late in the evening, and he saw "few masks." He also found the company unsettling, for "some of the visitors were intoxicated, and there appeared a willing disposition for disturbance." The next day he learned that shortly after his departure, a brawl resulted in twenty people being "more or less dangerously wounded.

I read this and of course heard Doom..

Don't appear to drunk
And let a stare turn into a "Yeah you, punk."

As a black dude who came of age in the 90s, Couch's article reminded me of the club scene. We didn't wear masks, but I don't think anyone put more effort into looking good than those of us who crammed into Republic Gardens or DC Live circa 1998. And of course the club-owners were obsessed with tamping down the violence.  In my younger years, instead of subscriptions we got "No jerseys, jeans or Timberlands." DC Live actually required neckties. The effect was a different sort of masking--In the uniform of stockbrokers, we danced to the most gutter shit you ever wanted to hear.

And so it was in New Orleans in the early to mid 19th century. These balls sound like raucous affairs. I'm getting so deep into this thing that, increasingly, I catch myself marveling at its elegance. The way societies organize themselves is beautiful--which, again, isn't the same as saying "good" "just" or "pretty."

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