Memphis Cotton Carnival

 ...The History from 1872 - 2012  


Click on small photos to enlarge them. 


Background:  In 1872, Memphis, along with much of the South, was suffering from the devastation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The city leaders thought that the city needed a show of civic pride that would bring the residents together and demonstrate to the outside world that Memphis was alive and well. They decided on a Mardi Gras celebration to help re-invigorate the spirits of the public.  So Memphis began to celebrate Mardi Gras, and a big Carnival season was born, based on the traditional Christian calendar just before the season of Lent, similar to what is still practiced in New Orleans and other cities.  This was largely staged by secret societies, or a “krewe” system, but mostly through the efforts of the Mystic Society of the Memphi. The societies held great parades, elaborate balls and parties to celebrate during this festive season.

1872 Memphis  First Mardi Gras



Posters would be put up all over the city and they would also be shipped to other states and even to Europe.  Not that anyone from Europe ever came to "Carnival", but at least they knew about the big celebration in the City of Memphis.  This very rare 1877 Receipt (on the right) is from one of the Carnival founders, Gene Colton Greene  to J. H. Miller, as payment for "services rendered" in distributing, Carnival Posters throughout Memphis, and mailing them to other States, and to Europe.  Does $20 seem a trifle extravagant for the total expenditure for these services?   >>


During Carnival season, the most coveted invitation of the year was hand delivered by a servant wearing a white jacket and all the trimmings.  In the book "The American Plague", Molly Crosby describes the event.  "The envelope was exquisite, large and square, with golden calligraphy.  Inside it took the shape of a scroll on powder-blue parchment with a regal crown framing the top where CARNIVAL:  MEMPHIS MARDI GRAS was engraved.  Fanning out of Egyptian pyramid, the secret order of the Ulks and Memphi invited you and your household to attend pageants March 4 and 5, 1878". 

"Over 10,000 people would answer this invitation to Memphis including, one year, the president of the United States.  As many as 40,000 revelers would stand shoulder to shoulder along the downtown streets of Memphis.  Harper's would reserve front-page coverage, sending their best illustrator.  The glitter and glamour of the event was known across the country, and it was widely whispered that New Orleans had sent scouts to Memphis to study the parade.  And so began Carnival".



  Rare Mardi Gras
    Medal - 1901         

However, Memphis experienced the devastation of a yellow fever epidemic which along with cholera wiped out much of the city's population. Mardi Gras celebrations slowly ceased to exist, and by the late 1890's, the Mystic Memphi and other societies, as well as the Mardi Gras festivals as a whole were no longer an active institution in the city.

Fast forward 30 years.  The Cotton Carnival came about as an event to publicize the economic heart of Memphis - cotton. In 1931 Memphis, like the rest of the country, was suffering through the Great Depression.  Many were out of work and the  primary asset of the region - cotton, was selling for pennies a pound. Mid-South prosperity had always depended on cotton and  measures were needed to increase the use of this precious commodity. At the same time, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce was having trouble raising money to compete with other cities in the South.


Arthur Halle and a group of businessmen met with Herbert Jennings, Loew's State theatre manager to ask for a donation. Jennings recommended that to help publicize an upcoming movie, he would offer retailers space to display cotton goods in his theatre and encourage them to use their own store windows to promote cotton clothing.  The group was intrigued by the idea and met with the President of the Cotton Exchange, Everett Cook.  The idea quickly grew into plans for a grand "cotton celebration" with a King, Queen, and Royal Court that would involve people from all over the Mid-South.  By promoting the use and wearing of cotton products, the demand for these products would stimulate sales.  The plan was put into action, and it worked, as people began to demand more and more cotton products. 


And the Cotton Carnival Begins ... 




The newly named "Cotton Carnival" kicked off in 1931 with the riverfront arrival of the Royal Court on a grandly decorated  barge, which made major use of cotton bales and flags.  Afterwards the King and Queen made their way from the barge  to the horse-drawn Royal Carriage and led the great parade down Main Street.   When the parade was over, the crowds enjoyed a carnival midway that had been set up on Front Street.  This pattern would be repeated with great success for many years.  The theme of the first carnival was "The Old South", and there were 86 floats in the parade.  P.S. The first carnival was in March and it snowed   ...


1931 Royal Barge

1931 Queen

1930s Royalty

1933 Royalty

1934 Barge

1937 Barge


Cotton Carnival became a major festival not rivaled anywhere in the South except possibly New Orleans,  and the event began to incorporate more than it had originally set out to do.  The "South's Greatest Party" became Memphis' most important and celebrated event.   The arrival of the Royal Barge was the event not to be missed.  The King, Queen, and Royal Court, along with the royal pages, guards and other participants, would all glide in on a beautifully decorated and lighted barge on the Mississippi River, docking at the foot of Union and the historic cobblestones, as an elaborate display of fireworks filled the night sky.  It seemed that all of Memphis was present at these Royal Barge Landings and each year the barge designs became more elaborate ...
























After the arrival of the barge, the crowds would head to Main Street to watch the opening Carnival Parade with bands and beautifully decorated floats.  Because the parade was late in the evening, and the floats were not electrically lit the first few years,  boy scouts were enlisted to carry flares.  Two scouts holding flares for illumination, walked on each side of the floats.  By 1937 the floats were ingeniously electrified by using the trolley lines above, which came about by accident.   A few weeks before the 1937 parade all the floats were destroyed in a fire.  The parade was going to be cancelled, but it was suggested that some of the floats could be rebuilt and electrified by using old trolley flat- beds and trolley electrical hook-ups.  Thus the electrical parade was born.  The earliest floats were pulled by horses or large mules.  It should be noted that later these early floats were pulled by black men, otherwise blacks didn't participate in the parade.  Later, large trucks pulled the floats ... 


Commercial Appeal 1931

1931 Float

1931 King-Queen

1931 Float


Vintage float           Horse Drawn Floats 1934 Blacks pull Floats 1930's 1930's Royal Carriage

From the grand electrical parade, the crowds would head to the Carnival Midway set up on Front street for food, rides, games,  and sideshows.  When Front Street was originally developed, the city planners kept "open spaces" not only for views of the river, but for use in various community functions. During most years of the "Memphis Cotton Carnival", in addition to all the parades and formal festivities, there was always an "Royal American Shows" carnival midway for the public and it was set up along Front Street.   In 1973, the midway and other activities moved to the Fairgrounds ...


Poster Gypsy Rose Lee - 1949 Gypsy Rose Lee - 1949 Headliner Gypsy - 1949 Side Shows





Midway - 1950s 1940 Rides - 1940 Rides - 1940 Midway

Cotton Maker's Jubilee :  And although not official or in writing, the Cotton Carnival was a white only affair. In 1935 a Beale Street dentist, Dr. R. Q. Vinson, founded what would become the Cotton Maker's Jubilee, as a protest to establish dignity and respect for Negro men and women.  It opened with a big parade on Beale Street and ran concurrently with Cotton Carnival as a parallel festival. ("...Separate but equal"???)  The Jubilee enjoyed its most successful years from 1948-1958.  The organization briefly merged with Carnival Memphis in 1982 and the name then was Krewe Kemet Jubilee ...




1937 Jubilee Royalty

1939 Jubilee Royalty

1956 Jubilee Royalty

1975 Jubilee Royalty

1980Jubilee Royalty


1938  Program 1940  Program

1956  Program

1975 Program

1980 Program

1980 Program

1980 Program


1951 Jubilee Party

1961 NAACP opens fire...

1937 Parade on Beale St.

JJubilee Midway


1938 Cotton Maker's Jubilee

1940 Cotton Maker's Jubilee Cotton Maker's Jubilee

 Cotton Maker's Jubilee    









After the carnival had become established, a Maid of Cotton Pageant was created in 1939 to find a bright and beautiful young lady from any cotton-growing state, who would travel the world and be a representative for the cotton industry.  She invited the world to the Cotton Carnival, as she made appearances in her beautifully designed all-cotton wardrobe.  The Maid of Cotton Pageant  became almost as big as the Miss America Pageant and the day parade was  re-named in her honor ...


      Maid of Cotton Pageant

1950 Maid's Float

1939 + 1955 Maids of Cotton

1958 + 1966 Maids of Cotton


CBC -1932 1936 1940 1940

1930s-Blacks pull floats

1930s Blacks pull floats 1950 "Prom"

1969 Circus Wagon      


1940                     Vintage 1946 CBC Vintage







ROTC 1969




1950s Band                  1930s Official Band Robt E. Lee 1951 1960s Kids March

And as the Cotton Carnival grew, a 2nd electrical parade was added -  to close the festivities on the last Saturday.  This final parade might include as many as 30 floats.  Throughout its history the Cotton Carnival was cancelled only twice - during the WWII years because Memphis was a "blackout" city, and again in 1968 after the Martin Luther King assassination  ...


1966 1966 1966 1966

1966 1966 1966 1966

1946 CBC Band 1940 1940 1940s

1946 1946 1946 1946



"Thanksgiving" 1950












Within a few years of the founding of Cotton Carnival, secret societies known as KREWES were formed.  The Memphi was resurrected from the old Memphis Mardi Gras.  Osiris was formed along the lines of the New Orleans Mystik Krewes.  Shortly afterwards, Sphinx and RaMet were formed.  These organizations functioned to throw lavish private parties and each had their private party rooms in various downtown hotels.  And major actors from Hollywood were often special guests.   Over the years, these parties became representative of what Cotton Carnival was all about.  And of course, African Americans were excluded.

While much of the carnival was dedicated to the private parties and activities of the secret societies. one thing should be noted:  Whenever the Carnival Association was  in need of funds, these groups pulled out their check books and asked no questions ...


1946 Ladies in Waiting

1940s with Boss Crump

1940 Royalty



1954 Osiris Royalty  

1950 Royalty

Two Carnivals Meet


The parades continued big time up to the early  60s and then began to slip in quality as well as in attendance.   The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left Memphis devastated - especially the state of its downtown area.  Urban sprawl became more common and long-time businesses and residents moved away from city center  Public events that were staged by the Cotton Carnival became few and far between. Parades slowly disappeared, as did the arrival of the Royal Barge. The Memphis Government acquired the “float factory” at Mill and Main, where the decorated floats were manufactured.  And Memphians became less interested in this event.



Eventually Carnival was left with a series of debutante parties at private country clubs.  The parades were gone along with the fireworks and the Midway.  The national press had lost interest in the Carnival, and the Maid of Cotton Pageant was moved to Dallas.  It had taken a long time, but Carnival officials finally became aware of the negative issues of the carnival and they began to implement steps to bring outsiders into the realm.  They tried to eliminate carnival's racial baggage by focusing on private businesses and charitable giving rather than on the grand parties.  Local Memphis charities were selected to receive donations.  



The 1980’s saw the Cotton Carnival name changed to the Great River Carnival, and shortly after that, changed to Carnival Memphis.  To make the festivities more open, the secret societies were recast as Grand Krewes.  The king was now chosen from leaders in other than the cotton industry.  He was no longer called “King Cotton,” but simply King.  The Cotton Makers Jubilee was merged into one of the Grand Krewes in 1981, but kept its name.  In 1999, the Cotton Makers Jubilee adopted a new name Memphis Kemet Jubilee.  Perhaps the biggest change was the festivities were moved to the month of June.

Today, the mission of Carnival Memphis remains the same as it was in 1931 - to recognize and promote an industry (no longer cotton) that has economic impact on the Mid-South, and to promote the City of Memphis as a great place to live and work, and to have an annual celebration in honor of that industry and the people of the Mid-South.


The Royal Barge no longer arrives on the Mississippi to introduce the King and Queen.  There are no longer any official Carnival parades.  But the clubroom private parties of the Grand Krewes still make a glitzy splash during the month of June.

Yes, the Carnival still exists in Memphis, but the average younger Memphian doesn't seem to even be aware of it. basically, it appears that if you aren't part of the Grand Krewes, then you aren't aware that Carnival Memphis exists.   If you ask the younger Memphian about it, they think you're talking about "Memphis in May", or the "Beale Music Festival".  But ask anyone who was around during the 1950s-1960s "What happened to the Cotton Carnival"?  And they'll reply, "The Cotton Carnival is gone.  There aren't any more parades or midway.  There's nothing".  And they'll add, "They gave us 'Memphis in May' to replace it" 



Mike Abt - Artist, Teacher, Cotton Carnival Director


Mike Abt, Tech High teacher and artist, was the guiding force behind all the barge and float designs for the Memphis Cotton Carnival, until his death in 1952.    He was particularly noted for the use of brilliant illumination, which became the highlight of all carnival parades.   Billboard Magazine featured a nice article about him (below), in 1952.   Mike Abt had brought in his Tech High art students to decorate the floats in the first 1931 parade.  And throughout the 1940s-1950s, he brought in art students from all city schools to decorate the floats.  It was good experience for them and free labor for the Carnival Association.  There was never a shortage of student workers during this period.  After Mike Abt's death, it was only natural that the float designs and overall appearance of the parades would began to change.  In the 1960s, auto convertibles were added to the parades, a good indication that the number of floats had decreased.  By the mid 1960s,  fewer and fewer high school students were willing to do this work and the Carnival Association dropped them altogether and hired a staff to decorate the floats.  


Mike Abt - C 1935

Mike Abt - 1951

Billboard June 28, 1952

The article in Billboard.

Click to read

Click to read



Cotton Carnival Memorabilia ... is very collectible


1947 Flyer      

1933 Ad

1881 Ad


1947 Program

1960 Souvenir


Carnival Costumes Time 1934 Transportation Ad Carnival Poster 1950s Decal

1971 Jazz-Blues     


Carnival Costumes 1934 Poster 1935 Poster 1936 Poster 1937 Poster Souvenir Plate

Memphis punchbowl

Souvenir Glass

1936 Article

Coco Cola Cap

1946 Program

Carnival Plate


1955 Flyer

1935 Postcards

1938 Sample

1941 Envelope


Cotton Carnival License 


1947 Program

1947 Program


1946 Perfume Bottle

1937 Poster

 1928 Pet Parade

 1961 Pet Parade

 Carnival Calendar


1940s Doll


Leslie's 1878

Carnival Medals 1979




1972 Patch 1974 Patch 1975 Patch Mystic Society 1939 Maid Maid Music

1935 Cotton Carnival Souvenir Program

Click on Program Cover to see the individual pages from this Program. 


1873 Invitation 1874 Memphi 1877 Libretto 1877 Ticket 1878 Keys to City 1878 Parade 1878

Vintage Invitation


   1888  Invitation front  >

    <  1888 Invitation back      

1890 Invitation


1872-1875 Reveller's Ball

1875 Mardi Gras drawings in Daily Graphic Magazine.  Big Files...Be patient when opening

< <  <  This rare 1876 booklet has details about the parade and all of the floats.

1876 Program   < Page 2     Page 3 Page 4 Page 5 Page 6 Page 7 Page 8 9

1876 Ticket


1877 Parade Sketches

Mardi Gras Dance Cards

1956 Medal

Sally Rand Midway 1940

Band Meal Ticket 1949


1946 Billhead Poland Photo 1960 Button 1938 Banner 1948 program 1875 Review

Ethel Vinson


1941 Program


1872 Mardi Gras

1937 Pin

1931 Transportation Promotion



Confessions of a Carnival Float Decorator...

- Gene Gill,  Webmaster, "Historic Memphis" 2012 and Float Decorator 1948-1952


Memphis used to be a parade town.  The love for parades went  back to early Memphis history when the city threw so many parades that a respectable new parade could be arranged at the slightest suggestion.  When Cotton Carnival became an official part of the Memphis Calendar in 1931, it was only natural for the city to include great parades.  The parades became such an important part of the year that a special "Memphis Cotton Carnival" building was built at the corner of Mill and Main.  Those of us who worked there simply called it "the float building".  It was a huge barn-like structure with a tin roof and all the city's floats were designed, built, decorated, and stored there.  Building floats became a year-round operation because in addition to carnival, the city began holding parades on Thanksgiving, Christmas, sometimes on Armistice Day-Veterans Day and the 4th of July.  But the main parades were those for Cotton Carnival.  There were generally two night parades and 1 day parade - and each of them was made up of roughly 15 to 30 floats.


I began my tenure at the "float building" during the 10th grade at Tech High School in 1948.  As the new kid on the block, I had to learn the ropes by working on someone else's float for at least one parade.  My first parade was a Christmas Parade and I took to the job immediately, as well as to the new terminology.   "Flitter" was the sparkling "glitter".  "Puffing" was the crumpled tissue paper which looked soft and cloud-like.  It was puffed on the float floor with wheat paste - which we mixed ourselves.   Large sheets of metallic colored foil had to be wrinkled to reflect light and had to be adhered to the sides of floats with molasses. 

My First Float

I already knew about Papier Mache - but not on such a grand scale.  And I also already knew how to use Tempera Paint - the only paint used on the floats.  The photos below were taken with  the first camera I ever owned.  The quality is not very good, but very few of us at this time even had a camera ...



Cotton Carnival floats were designed by several professional artists  and sometimes by senior artists from the Memphis Academy of Arts.  "Sponsors" of floats were the "royalty" of the float building and usually got to pick the design of their choice- These sponsors were high school art students who became responsible for finding the workers to help with the decorating,  supervising their work, designing the costumes, assigning the riders on the float, and seeing that the float was finished on time.  High School students who worked on the floats got out of school at 2 PM and could work as late as 9 PM.  Some students worked only two hours every day - some stayed late.  I was usually there until near 9 PM ... 


"Hawaii" "Hawaii"

"Happy Motoring"




Working dail and staying late paid off, because after working on just the one Christmas parade float I was allowed to Sponsor a float.   Sponsors had an additional responsibility.  When workers needed more material such as paint, brushes, foil, paste, etc., the sponsor had to check out these materials for the them.  The staff quickly learned which sponsors did the most work and which ones were the least wasteful.  For all of this responsibility, the sponsor received a BIG perk - a "dinner-chit" for thirty five cents - honored at a "hamburger restaurant" a couple of blocks away where we ate dinner.  All the workers got was to be on the float during the actual parade.  But that was fun!  

From 1948 through1951, I was a regular fixture at the float building and sponsored floats in every parade for those years.  And this included a float in the Thanksgiving Parade, the Christmas Parade, the Armistice Day Parade, and one 4th of July Parade, in addition to the Cotton Carnival floats.  Even after graduation in 1951, I returned during my first year at Memphis State ...


Freedaom of Religion Freedaom of Religion "South of the Border" "Valentine's Day" "New Years"


Santa's Float

"Thanksgiving"   "Alice in Wonderland"

COSTUMES:  As a float Sponsor, you either had to design or see that the costumes for your float were designed.  There was no internet for research.  Since most float themes were historical, we researched at the library or "made it up".  The designs were turned in to a carnival employee.  Several weeks before the parade, they would call us in and give us the fabric for the designs.  They stocked every color of a basic cotton fabric, a basic net fabric, and ribbons, including metallic.  That's it.  Everyone who wore a costume was responsible for seeing that it got made and it was up to them if they wanted to splurge a bit and use use a better quality fabric.  It was amazing to see how clever the workers were in creating their costumes ... 


Design 1950


Pilgrim - Centurian "Tojo" Winter - Hawaii - Matador

My "dream-float" was "Madam Butterfly" in 1951.  It was a beautifully designed float by a recent Art Academy graduate .  On the front was a large gold cherry tree in full bloom.  Toward the middle was a Japanese Moon Bridge.  At the back was a beautifully designed Temple with delicate screens on each side.  This design was so beautiful that I wanted it to be perfectly decorated.  We figured out a way to create the cherry blossoms by using pink crepe paper combined with pink cellophane.  Each piece had to be twisted and then wired together so they could be wired to the tree.  I needed over 200,000 blossoms.  That was a good job for my "workers" - and they totally hated me for it - but hey, someone had to do it.  Meanwhile, I was doing the

fun part - decorating that gorgeous Japanese bridge and temple.  About a week before the parade, Mike Abt came over while I was working and said, "Gene, this is the most beautifully decorated float that we've ever had".  I lived for months on that compliment.   I've always regretted that, to my knowledge, there's actually no photo of this float anywhere.


A few days before the parade in 1951, the building staff threw a dance party for the workers.  This was the only time that happened during my 4 years.  We had food, music, and dancing.  We also had a floor show and we were it.  Mike Abt began the ceremony by announcing that we were forming a new Secret Society of Carnival Surfs, and needed a King, Queen, and Royal Court.  They had been selected by secret ballot and he was going to announce them.  I was named King Foil.  My crown was a paint bucket made of card board, My scepter was a huge paint brush.  And they had borrowed the robes from previous carnival royalty and draped those over my shoulder.  My throne was a wheat paste barrel.  And then the Queen "Flitter" and the Royal Court were announced.  We were all very surprised with this.  Great fun!  Plus, we got photos in the newspaper ... 


Mike Abt Society of  Carnival Serfs - Commercial Appeal Society of Carnival Serfs

Another part of the ceremony was drawing names to attend one of the Secret Society parties during carnival week, in the downtown hotels.  Four of us drew "Osiris".  And of course, at the Osiris party in the Claridge Hotel, we were part of their entertainment, but I saw it the other way and loved every minute of it.  At the time, Memphis was a dry city, but alcohol could be served at private parties.  Osiris served the four of us a glass of Champaign (15 -17 years old).  Wilbur Weaver tasted his Champaign and frowned.  Charles and Mary Nell ignored theirs.  Although I had never tasted alcohol before, I drank all of mine.  ...and have loved Champaign ever since.


PARADE DAY  You arrive at the float building about 1 to2 hours prior to the parade.  All the floats are now lined up on Main Street outside the Float Building.  Little by little your "cast members"  arrive and you see their costumes for the first time.   You're not always pleased (Why can't they follow my design pattern?).   The few who have cameras take a few photos as you wait for darkness.  At the magic hour, the float lights are turned on.  The thrill of seeing all the floats electrified for the first time never ends.  It is magic!  The parade begins and all is good and it was worth all the work.  Next year will be even better.


More scenes around the float building... etc ...


Commercial Appeal Commercial Appeal Float Building Gene - Turkey Robert E. Lee Float

The "float building" was actually the Cotton Carnival Association at 547 N. Main.  The plain barn-like building was huge because it had to accommodate all the floats for 3 parades (2 night parades and 1 day parade).   And it also contained work shops and design studios, as well as offices.  Today this is the Main Street Trolley Building, used for restoring and maintenance of all the antique trolleys that have returned to Memphis.   >

                                          - Gene Gill, February 2012

547 N. Main today






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The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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