New Orleans: The Paris of America
Posted on May 7, 2012
This early 1900s postcard, sketched by Z. A. Hendrick and published by the St. Charles Hotel, depicts a hypothetical tourist itinerary in New Orleans, “The Paris of America.” With three of thirteen pictures devoted to mild winter weather, the card reveals how actively New Orleans promoters courted northern winter tourists in the early 20th century. Of course, the thermometer’s 75° Fahrenheit reading is a bit optimistic even for New Orleans on a typical winter day.
The card offers clues about how tourists reached and encountered American cities in the early years of the past century. Arriving by passenger train, tourists could opt for a “sight-seeing trip” on board a motorized touring car in a time before automobiles reached wide use. It also suggests much about the way promoters hoped tourists would see New Orleans.
The French Quarter is not named as such on the card because it was less central to the city’s image a century ago than now and, indeed, was even a source of some consternation among more “progressive” leaders for its ragged appearance, as detailed in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition. Nonetheless, the Quarter makes an appearance via the “Andrew Jackson Monument,” “old Spanish Cabildo,” “famous French restaurants” near Royal Street, and more obliquely in the reference to “some French and Creole maidens.” Typical of tourist guidebooks of the era, this postcard gives impressions of the city well beyond the Quarter. For instance, the newer mansions of St. Charles Avenue, the river harbor, and the Delgado Museum (as New Orleans Museum of Art was originally known) in City Park claim space on the card.
Mardi Gras gets a passing nod, but Storyville and jazz earn no mention. Storyville was a civic embarrassment grudgingly tolerated though wildly popular. Jazz was not yet recognized as a worthy component of local culture and would have to prove its value through the migration of jazz musicians who made their name in the very northern cities from which the tourists hailed. The suggested way to encounter African American culture at that time was to see it through the lens of the mythical Old South. The banjo-strumming man sitting on cotton bales bespeaks the manner in which many southerners sought to romanticize race in the age of Jim Crow.
Long before the New Orleans Fair Grounds became inseparable from Jazz Fest in the national imagination, its thoroughbred races were legendary. William Faulkner even built a short story (“Damon and Pythias Unlimited,” published in the Times-Picayune in 1925) around a tourist’s trip from the St. Charles Hotel to the Fair Grounds with a couple of uncoordinated con men.
Which places would make an appearance in your impressions of New Orleans?