When people think of New Orleans, usually one of the first things that comes to mind is Mardi Gras and the incredible floats that bring the festival's parades to life. Floats are one of the highlights of the yearly Mardi Gras celebrations, and with good reason. They are incredible works of art that can take as long as an entire year to create.
Although the Mardi Gras celebration traces its roots back as far as medieval Europe, the first accounts of a similar festival in New Orleans appear in the late 1700s. by the mid 19th century, horseback drawn floats, built in France, made their appearance in the parades. In 1873, all of the parade floats were built in the U.S. for the first time. Since that period, Mardi Gras floats have become progressively more complex, detailed and spectacular.
Mardi Gras floats are built by each individual Krewe to represent both the organization and a specific theme or idea. It is considered an honor to be asked to ride with a Krewe, and the float provides a platform for the members to distribute "throws"--one of the most beloved of Mardi Gras customs in which small collectible trinkets are thrown out to the waiting crowd.
Mardi Gras floats, regardless of which Krewe they are sponsored by, share some commonalities. They are always colorful, and generally incorporate the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green. However, the larger Krewes, such as Bacchus, have floats that are far larger and more spectacular, measuring up to 50 feet long. The signature floats reappear in the parade year after year, having received revamping and touch-ups while other floats are built new for each year's theme. Crowds look forward to seeing their favorite signature floats each season.
Due to safety concerns, the city of New Orleans puts maximum size restrictions on Mardi Gras floats. They may not be taller than 18 feet in order to avoid hitting traffic lights. The width of a float may not exceed 13 feet, but the city does not specify a maximum length. In fact, some of the biggest floats, such as the signature "Leviathan," are more than 50 feet long. Floats are frequently damaged by low-hanging branches and overzealous driving around curbs.
A modern Mardi Gras float shares a common building method with floats of 100 years ago, though the process is more refined and the end result more complex. All floats start off with a chassis and a wooden and metal frame. The large sculptures, or props, are made of fiberglass, papier-mache and Styrofoam, and along with the background are painstakingly airbrushed and hand painted. More expensive floats have a portable bathroom on board and some are even "double-deckers" built to hold dozens of people in addition to the huge props on board.