On the evening of February 23, 1887, a crowd lined St. Charles Avenue to witness a procession of lanterns floating like a swarm of fireflies through the darkened street. First came the bandwagon, pulled along by four horses led by the famous acrobat and vaudeville theater magnate Signor Faranta. Behind that came seventy of those novel, wheeled machines (bicycles) that had appeared on the city streets just seven years before. Perched four feet from the ground on his high wheel bicycles came the costumed “Romeo,” and behind him Mephistopheles astride flapping wings of red.
Dressed as The Mikado, the Grand Marshall appeared on a tricycle illuminated by eighteen Chinese lanterns and covered by a twelve-foot Japanese umbrella, from which dangled fifty jewels. Nanki Poo and his friend rode together on a tandem tricycle, its large wheel woven with gold and silver sunfish, topped with a Chinese pagoda fourteen feet across, fifteen feet high, and graced with six dozen lanterns in crossing arches. Behind them came more in costume: a man dressed in black with the figure of a human skeleton outlined in white; a young man dressed as a ballerina; devils, jockeys, princes, harlequins; silk, velvet, and glitter all displayed in a procession on wheels.
This spectacle was the Carnival bicycle parade held on Ash Wednesday. The parade, organized by the New Orleans Bicycle Club and put on by cyclists from New Orleans and cities all over the South, intended to roll the Monday prior to Mardi Gras and the press billed the procession a central feature of that years’ Carnival celebrations. However, pouring rain on Lundi Gras forced the postponement. Despite the awkward date—normally a day of quiet sobriety—Rex and his queen watched from a balcony and applauded the luminous scene, as did the crowd along St. Charles Avenue. Almost every house was light up and many of the balconies decorated for the event.
Only seven years prior to this celebrated parade, bicycles were considered by the people of New Orleans an unwelcome intrusion: the riders considered undignified and the vehicles a menace that did not belong on the streets. 1887 was the year bicycle enthusiasts convinced New Orleanians otherwise.