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Cheryl Gerber, Getty Images
Cheryl Gerber, Getty Images

Who Gets to Ride on Mardi Gras Floats?

Cheryl Gerber, Getty Images
Cheryl Gerber, Getty Images

Mardi Gras is pure sensory overload, and no attraction defines the celebration better than its parades. Every year, the city of New Orleans is awash in garish greens, yellows, and purples as armies of ornate, bombastic floats roll through the streets. But if you think drunkenly asking for a seat on one of these floats is going to work, well ... it's a bit more complicated than that.

The dozens of Mardi Gras parades are thrown by groups called "krewes," which are basically the organizations that stage these events. There are krewes with all sorts of themes: there's the Krewe of Cleopatra, which was originally formed just for women; the Krewe of Mid-City, with their tinfoil-decorated floats; the Krewe of Orpheus, founded by Harry Connick Jr., whose floats usually feature a celebrity or two; and plenty more.

Members of these krewes are who you see riding on the floats throughout the season, decked out in masks and costumes. In fact, float-riders are required by law to wear a mask to keep up the festival's mystique. To get on these floats you have to be a member, which involves a whole other process, depending on which krewe you choose.

Some krewes will bring you on board for a small entry fee, though this probably means you'll be helping put together the floats, buying your own costumes, etc. Others—especially for the larger and more established krewes—have a bigger fee and even hold reviews by senior members. Some of these krewes have been established within the past decade or two, while others, like the Krewe of Rex, have been around since the 19th century.

A Mardi Gras float celebrating the life of John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), an American naturalist, ornithologist and artist, in New Orleans, circa 1956.
A Mardi Gras float celebrating the life of John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), an American naturalist, ornithologist and artist, in New Orleans, circa 1956.
Three Lions, Getty Images

All membership requirements are unique. For the Krewe of Morpheus, for example, you would have needed to put in your $100 deposit in January to reserve a spot on a float (krewes have multiple floats of varying size). In total, their dues for the season are $550, which will get you a "Ride in the parade; Costume; Morpheus Bash (Pre-Parade Party); Post-Parade Party; & 1 Membership Medallion."

The Krew of Pygmalion, a krewe started in 2000, offers a similar process, with an online application and a tiered membership system that begins at $450 with $150 down, all the way to $1375 with $300 down. Smaller, grassroots krewes have even cheaper dues, like the sci-fi-themed Krewe of Chewbacchus which charges $42 and once had Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens fame as the king of its float.

Many times, the larger krewes, like the Krewe of Muses, simply don't have room for any more members. And even if there is an opening on some of these select krewes, you'd have to know a guy who knows a guy to even be considered for membership. So if you're not from New Orleans (or a celebrity) and want to get into one of the notable krewes, it's a tall order.

If you're planning a Mardi Gras trip this year, you'll likely have to settle for walking the streets instead of riding down them. But, it's never too early to start sending out those applications for 2019.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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