The main reason why New Orleans Carnival parades are more exciting and fun than parades in other parts of the country is that the crowds are active participants. Mardi Gras parade riders don’t just stand and wave (or try to lip-sync songs), they throw stuff to you! Beads, cups, stuffed animals, plastic toys: you can catch them all at a parade, but some of the most prized “throws” are doubloons.
Small toys and strings of beads have been thrown by members of Carnival krewes since the 1800s. “Wooden nickels” appeared during Carnival in the 1930s, but krewes started throwing coins made of aluminum beginning in the 1960s.
The story goes that H. Alvin Sharpe, a local artist, got word that the School of Design, better known as the Rex Organization, was looking for a new throw. The men who put on the Rex parade recognized their position in the Carnival hierarchy and regularly took steps to maintain it. By the late 1950s, parades grew in number and spread out into most neighborhoods of the city. There were even groups expanding parading into the suburbs. Rex would have to do something to keep ahead of the crowd. Mr. Sharpe, having a passion for Mardi Gras and skills in painting and sculpting, thought a coin minted from aluminum would make a unique throw for the King of Carnival. Mr. Sharpe (who passed away in 1982), contacted local financier Mr. Darwin Fenner, who was then the captain of the Rex Organization. Sharpe made his proposal, but Mr. Fenner had concerns about safety. He made an appointment with Fenner at Fenner’s office. When he walked into the room, Sharpe threw a handful of the blank coins he had in mind to use at Fenner. They bounced off Fenner, harmlessly hitting the floor. The idea was sold.
Since Sharpe was using aluminum blanks, they were larger than a silver dollar, and much lighter. This size made his coins similar to the Spanish doblón, which was gold, valued at 32 reales. Hence, the “Mardi Gras Doubloon” was born. Fenner placed an order for 3,000 of the coins, which would have a bust of Rex on the front and the arms of the School of Design on the reverse. The coins were to be undated; if the throw turned out to be a flop, krewe members could throw them the following year.
The doubloons were far from a flop! The success of that first batch of doubloons led to a much larger order the next year, with the date stamped on the coins. Other krewes followed suit, minting their own doubloons. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the doubloon became the most coveted throw in a parade.
Most doubloons thrown are minted on aluminum blanks in their natural, silvery color. Fenner ordered a small number of gold-anodized doubloons in that first 1960 order as well. Rex eventually standardized the gold-anodized blank for their doubloons. These were more expensive, but they’re Rex after all. Other krewes continue to this day to throw the silvery doubloons, but many krewes make doubloons in multiple colors. Take the Krewe of Bacchus, for example. This year’s Bacchus, Will Ferrell will throw wine-colored doubloons with Bacchus on the front and Ferrell’s portrait on the rear. Mounted officers of the krewe will throw black “Riding Lieutenant” doubloons. The krewe members on the floats will throw purple, green and gold doubloons.
In addition to the basic aluminum doubloons thrown from floats, many krewes mint special doubloons in bronze. Some of these are dual-colored or even tri-colored. A number of organizations carry doubloons to an even more valuable level, minting the coins in sterling silver. Krewe members give these coins away as keepsakes for family and close friends. Stories have been told since the 1960s of parade-goers catching something heaver than an average doubloon, discovering that a rider made an expensive mistake and threw a silver doubloon from the float!
Even though Carnival throws have gone “high-tech” with fiber optics, blinking LEDs, and other interesting twists, the doubloon is still considered to be the most collectible of throws. In his annual Mardi Gras Guide, Arthur Hardy uses an image of each krewe’s doubloon to start their entry. Groups exist for doubloon collecting and swapping, and there are a number of shops – physical and online – catering to these collectors.
Long live the doubloon!
Do you have a doubloon collection? Comment below and tell us about it!
Edward Branley is the author of Maison Blanche Department Stores, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is a partner in Yatmedia LLC, and is @Yatpunditon Twitter.