One of the coolest sites on the internet is Tulane University's Louisiana Research Collection of Mardi Gras costume and float designs. Here, thousands upon thousands of pieces of concept art detail parade pageantry dating back to the mid-1800s.
In the Tulane collection, you can find ridiculously meticulous artwork of century-old parade floats showcasing battles from Norse and Japanese mythology. But perhaps the weirdest parade theme ever to grace New Orleans was the post-Civil War tribute to Charles Darwin that doubled as a protest against Reconstruction. If the costume designs are to be believed, this particular parade was unmitigated nightmare fuel.
In 1873, Mardi Gras revelers from the Mistick Krewe of Comus — unversed in this newfangled evolutionary theory and angry at the Northern interlopers — dressed up as the "missing links" between animals, plants, and humans. Therefore, you had frightening human-grape and human-corn hybrids running around and fauna bearing the faces of Ulysses S. Grant, other hated politicians, and Darwin himself.
Dressed as everything from mice to monkeys, the members of the krewe paraded through the streets of the city. A poem, in imitation of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man [poem here], was painted on transparencies and carried along by the revelers. The real butt of the joke, however, was the Republican Party, not Darwin. The city police force, which supported the GOP and its plan for reconstruction of the post-Civil War South, wasn't amused. As the parade tried to cross Canal Street, the police put an end to it.
But not all of the old-timey pageantry was as virulent as the 1873 march. Mardi Gras patrons planned some sublime floats, even if their sense of global cultures was somewhat wanting.
The 1884 Proteus Krewe floats retold the Aeneid, complete with an unusually jaunty Polyphemus. (Side note: I call internet dibs on the novel title New Orleans Cyclops and will henceforth entertain book deals of any and all monetary sums.)
The 1888 Proteus floats were focused on the mythology of the Middle Ages. Here's Fafnir the dragon and Beowulf battling Grendel's mother and/or assassinating the Chicken of the Sea spokesmermaid. (Beowulf would pop up again in 1927, alongside his good friends Pocahontas and George Washington.)
For the 1892 parade, the Krewe of Proteus paid tribute to the world of fruits and vegetables (they tossed taxonomy to the wind and threw in fungi, cacti, and kelp too). My favorite scene is of the acorn vikings battling a gargantuan squirrel.
The 1895 Proteus displays tackled the myths of Asgard, because nothing says Deep South revelry like Ragnarök, the imprisonment of Loki, and the slaying of the Fenris wolf.
The 1900 Proteus Krewe theme was "A Trip To Wonderland," which included a perfunctory tip of the hat to Lewis Carroll, but mostly scenes of Satan hanging out with revelers. My favorite float mentioned in this article is probably the devil and a gang of winged bicyclers turning the Milky Way into their personal velodrome. The original Hell's Angels?
In 1925, the Krewe of Proteus designed a series of ambitious and elaborate floats based on Japanese mythology. Among those displays planned were a monster that resembled Falcor's grandfather, a giant butterfly, flaming steeds, the eight-forked serpent of Koshi, and Amaterasu the sun goddess being disapprovingly stared at by a giant chicken.
These designs are but the beginning. The Tulane University Louisiana Research Collection is an absolute treasure trove of flamboyant floats on such themes as Hindu deities, the genii, Chinese mythology, Faust, and Muhammad. Design and cosplay mavens, prepare to lose an hour or two mucking around in there.