Title

The Ritualized Construction of Status: The Men Who Made Mardi Gras, 1830--1900

Date of Award

2006

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

First Advisor

Bradley Bond

Advisor Department

History

Abstract

The city of Mobile, Alabama provides a unique case study in the connection between ritual and status in the nineteenth century urban south. Merchants poured into the port of Mobile from the northeast during the 1830s and 1840s, seeking a quick return on their investment in cotton. As Mobile's population expanded rapidly a new social hierarchy emerged, one constructed by a generation of young ambitious businessmen who turned to ritual traditions to express their perceived cultural superiority. Because their livelihood depended on social connections, cotton merchants, as well as other professionals, established a multitude of fraternal societies. Social acceptance could be gained through membership in exclusive organizations like Mobile's Masonic Order Number Ten. Through their connection to fraternal associations men found solidarity and order, while they cultivated power and status. The most exclusive of Mobile's antebellum fraternal organizations, the Cowbellion de Rakin, emerged after 1830, adding public parading and masking, rituals common in New York and Pennsylvania, to the secretive and mystical ceremonies of the Masons. The newly fashioned fraternal order, combining ritual and festivity, created a ritualized language of power and set the standard for the acquisition of status among men in Mobile. The Civil War dealt a heavy blow to Mobile's commercial development as a Union blockade interrupted the once steady flow of cotton trade. After the war, Mobile was never able to fully recover its economic power and while other United States cities industrialized and prospered in the later nineteenth century, Mobile stagnated. Through the end of the century, an emphasis on conservative traditions and a Lost Cause mentality combined to diminish Mobile's economic potential. When the economic elite that established itself in the antebellum period failed to prosper at the end of the century, elite status came to be defined less by economic factors. Mobile's economic downturn inflamed the social stresses of the post-emancipation south, leading to more overt expressions of masculinity and white superiority among the male elite. The ritualized performances of exclusive and secretive fraternal organizations were increasingly the means by which status was defined. Slowly replacing the antebellum focus on New Year's Eve with a new focus on the day of Mardi Gras, the parading fraternities which formed in Mobile after the Civil War functioned primarily to create and perpetuate the status of their organizers. During the turbulent end of the century in Mobile, a common vocabulary of material symbols and symbolic actions came into use as a means to define a white male elite, which struggled to maintain itself in the midst of its own political and economic failure.