Guest Essay: David Johnson offers a Presidents Day history lesson

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For anyone who follows historian and journalist David Johnson on Facebook, his “Weird Presidential History” posts have been an ongoing treat since the November election. David knows whereof he speaks; the new editor of museum publications at the New Orleans Museum of Art also served as editor of award-winning Louisiana Cultural Vistas and, the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana. He also serves as a board member of the (upcoming!) Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and is an avid presidential history buff. “I have visited every presidential library in the National Archives system, from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, as proof!” he noted in presenting this guest essay. Fun stuff to ponder for Monday (Feb. 20), President’s Day. Enjoy.


Author David Johnson

Presidents Day offers Americans a chance to reflect upon the 43 men who have represented the nation since 1789. Louisiana has long been host to a series of events that have shaped the presidency from its earliest days. Thomas Jefferson acquired the territory that ultimately became a state in 1812. Zachary Taylor, the only Louisianian to achieve the presidency, owned a plantation north of Baton Rouge in the 1840s. A young Abraham Lincoln sailed to New Orleans from his hardscrabble Indiana family farm to make money in the 1830s. Teddy Roosevelt found the “Sportsman’s Paradise” an irresistible destination for hunting and fishing expeditions. Alarmed by the threat to Gulf birdlife, he would establish one of the earliest national wildlife refuges at Breton Island in 1904.

Franklin and Eleanor frequented the state to witness New Deal projects following the death of nemesis Huey Long. Many of John F. Kennedy’s friends — and ultimately his assassin — emerged from Louisiana. George H.W. Bush would be nominated for the office at the Superdome in 1988. Seventeen years later, his son would be harangued for failing to provide timely assisted to thousands stranded there in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What follows here are a few little-known aspects of how the state has played a role in influencing the worldview of the varied men who have called the White House home.

thomas-jefferson-origTHOMAS JEFFERSON
Not long after Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803, he received word that the surprised citizens of La Nouvelle Orléans were anxious about the prospect of American rule. Among those who raised concern was Mother Superior Therese de St. Xavier of the Ursuline Convent, a nunnery that dated back to the city’s earliest French colonial founding in 1718.

In a letter dated July 13, 1804, a mere seven months after the real-estate transfer, President Jefferson assured the sister that though the U.S. would expect an unfamiliar separation of church and state in the former French and Spanish colonial city, the convent and its school would be guaranteed freedom to practice its charitable works and educational goals with no interference from federal authorities:

“To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

“I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. the principles of the constitution and government of the United states are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

“I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect. Th: Jeffers”

lincolnriverboatABRAHAM LINCOLN
In April 1828, at age 19, a lanky Abraham Lincoln journeyed down the Ohio River and into the Lower Mississippi Valley aboard a flatboat loaded with the bounty of farm products from his Indiana homeland. For young men in the early 19th-century Midwest, a riverborne escapade floating down current to New Orleans was an adventurous rite of passage and a means of putting cash in bare pockets. Continue reading

“Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival” puts women at the forefront of Mardi Gras history at the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytere

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WHAT: Louisiana State Museum presents an exhibition celebrating the history of all-female Carnival krewes as Iris marks its centenary
WHEN: Opens Fri. (Feb. 10); runs through December 2018
WHERE: The Presbytere (751 Chartres St.)
MORE INFO: Visit the Louisiana State Museum website

One of the most anticipated features of the 2017 Carnival season will examine the feminine mystique when the Louisiana State Museum (LSM) opens its “Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival” exhibition on Friday (Feb. 10) at the Presbytere.

Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival Exhibition from LaStateMuseum on Vimeo.

The exhibition, produced with the support of krewes of Iris, Muses and Nyx, will, among other things, use the centennial commemoration of Iris to explore the evolution of female krewes, from the 1890s to contemporary Carnival — which has seen an explosion of the concept over the past two decades. There will be rare artifacts from the LSM’s vast collection, but also will include pieces from outside lenders, including what is considered the earliest-known existing queen’s dress of Iris that was worn in 1941 by Irma Cazenave — spouse of Count Arnaud Cazenave. The dress has been provided on loan from Arnaud’s restaurant.

“The Krewe of Iris boldly paved the way for other women’s krewes,” said Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser said in the press release. “The tremendous surge in participation in Mardi Gras by women is a testament to their success.”

Iris is named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow. When it was founded back in 1917, the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing, and the right to vote was just a couple years away. The emergence of Iris came after two decades of New Orleans women’s work to establish Carnival organizations. Les Mystérieuses, the first of its kind, premiered with a ball in 1896. While the more recent emergence of such noted all-female krewes as Muses, Nyx and Femme Fatale will be noted, “Iris and the Goddesses of Carnival” will fill in the major gap in between — including a look at the first women’s parade, held by the Krewe of Venus in 1941.

(Check out images and other artifacts from the exhibition here.)

There also will be references to long-lost krewes such as “the Mittens, the Mystic Maids, Empyreans, Titanians and more,” the press release noted. “Long-lived parading krewes such as Shangri-La, Rhea and Cleopatra will provide another important part of the chronicle of women and carnival. Original tableau ball artworks executed by Spangenberg Studios; paintings inspired by the Iris, Muses and Nyx parades; and the very first Muses shoe from their inaugural 2001 parade will make this exhibition sparkle with the spirit of the many women’s krewes that have left their mark on carnival history.”

Some of the fun facts and highlights of the exhibition, courtesy of the museum, include:
Continue reading

The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Pamela D. Arceneaux offers her Top 5 reasons to read “Guidebooks to Sin”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WHAT: The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Pamela D. Arceneaux offers the first contemporary study of the illicit New Orleans district’s notorious directories.
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 7, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Octavia Books (523 Octavia St.)

WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 9, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Maple Street Book Shop (7519 Maple St.)

NOTE: Originally, I asked The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) reps if Pamela D. Arceneaux — Senior Librarian/Rare Books Curator — would be interested in offering her top 5 reasons she found it interesting to research what became her new book, “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans” (with a forward by Emily Epstein Landau) to anticipate its book-release party at THNOC on Friday, Feb. 3. The event has since sold out, as well as a Saturday symposium. But, as noted above, there are future events worth noting now so fans can plan ahead. Here are Arceneaux’s thoughts on her project below.

Between 1897 and 1917, Storyville, an infamous, yet legal, red-light district thrived on the edge of the French Quarter, and in “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans,” Pamela D. Arceneaux offers the first contemporary study of the area’s notorious directories.

Arceneaux states:
As the senior librarian and rare books curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection, these books have been an ongoing obsession for me for more than 35 years. Personally, I was interested in New Orleans during that turn-of-the-century era, and in Storyville specifically, and was attracted to these little directories to the brothels and women of the red-light district as soon as I found out about them. Here are five reasons that I find the books interesting and want people to know about these New Orleans prostitution guides.

Blue book : Tenderloin 400.1) Storyville existed for only 20 years, and these guides (collectively called “blue books” even though they were issued under different titles) are among the few tangible relics that remain from the District. Created by an 1897 city ordinance that legalized prostitution within a geographically specified area just north of the French Quarter, Storyville operated as a thriving red light district that attracted tourists from around the country. With American entry into World War I, vice districts located near military installations were forced to close, ushering Storyville’s demise on November 12, 1917.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Cover of Blue Book, [1901]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.4  

Blue book.2) Advertisements for brothels in genuine blue books contain little or no reference to sex — other than “French” or “69” indicating fellatio — and do not list prices for services. In fact, brothel advertisements did not even give any real information or personal descriptions about the women who managed or worked in the brothels. Decades after Storyville’s demise, fakes and facsimiles of these prostitution guides sold to tourists traded on its bawdy legacy. These reproductions often contained raunchier language than the genuine guides and helped give rise to the misconception that the blue books contained explicit material.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Brothel advertisement from Blue Book, [1905]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.6

Blue book.3) Numerous nationally and internationally recognized brands, including Budweiser, Pabst, Falstaff, Veuve Clicquot, Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, I. W. Harper, Dewars, and Black and White advertised in these prostitution guides, indicating a broad reach. These advertisements, along with those for local goods and services, targeted a wealthy, white male audience, and help piece together a night in Storyville for both visitors to New Orleans as well as locals.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Advertisements from Blue Book, [1905]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.6

bluebooks_groupshot4) It is still unknown how many editions of these guides were published, or how many copies of each edition were printed. The Historic New Orleans Collection holds 24 copies of genuine guides from the Storyville-era, spanning fifteen individual editions. Our 16 copies of post-Storyville-era fakes and facsimilies represent 10 different individual editions. Together, they make up what is possibly the largest collection of New Orleans prostitution guides. Very few have survived, and examples that come on the market are considered quite rare.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: A selection of blue books from The Historic New Orleans Collection

Blue book.5) The “blue books” promoted Storyville as an entertainment, dance, and music venue at a time when the city was marketing itself as a winter resort, convention, and Carnival destination. This self-promotion reveals that the District and its entrepreneurs were in step with social and commercial trends that separated luxury from reality, and that the glamour suggested in its guides was part of a concentrated marketing strategy to attract upper-class white men. This marketing strategy has ensured New Orleans’ reputation as a good-time town to the present day.

PHOTO CREDIT: Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
CAPTION: Advertisement and preface from Blue Book, [1905]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1969.19.6

— With grateful appreciation to The Historic New Orleans Collection for providing these archival images.