On a recent beach vacation I discovered that many towns along the Jersey shore hold a 'baby parade' each summer. I was intrigued by the idea of a parade of babies, but I chose an afternoon of lounging over further investigation -- bloggers get vacations too!
After returning home, a thought occurred to me: "If baby parades existed in New Jersey, maybe there was one in Brooklyn too." It's not that I think everything ties back to Brooklyn. It's just that through my posts I have become familiar with Brooklyn's tendency towards the kitschy and quirky. Off to the Eagle "morgue" I went.
Success! Brooklyn did have a baby parade:
And before Brooklyn had its own parade, Brooklynites would travel to New Jersey to participate there:
I learned that a baby parade is an opportunity to dress up and show off your child (they used the term "baby" loosely) while competing for cash and/or glory. It was every stage mom's dream. The greatest of all baby parades was held at Asbury Park, which attracted people from all over the world. The Library of Congress has footage of the 1904 parade, which was the year two-year-old Brooklynite Samuel Peden won the novelty division for dressing as a hod carrier. I particularly like the floats towards the end, including the mini boxing ring at 5:07.
The Brooklyn Baby parade took place in Coney Island and was linked to the annual Coney Island Mardi Gras festivities. The Mardi Gras events warrant another blog entry (it's in progress!). But in summation: Coney Island Mardi Gras took place every September to celebrate the end of summer and mimicked the New Orleans affair with a week of costumes, parades and massive (occasionally drunken) crowds. Mardi Gras and the parade ended in 1954. But today's Mermaid Parade is intended to be a one-day homage to Coney's Mardi Gras.
According to the Eagle the baby parade was the "crowning event" of Mardi Gras, taking place on the last day of the festivities since 1916. The parade featured 400-600 babies with spectator crowds of around 350,000 people. While most participants were from Brooklyn, the parade attracted families from other boroughs, New Jersey and beyond. Participants could dress any way they liked. Some prefered traditional white "Sunday Best," while others went for thematic costumes and floats. Some even got political: "Protests against prohibition, birth control, the slaying of innocent children and police censorship of bathing beauties.. all found expression in the colorful and unique floats." (Eagle, 1931)
$2,000 was spent on trophies for the entrants. Every participant received a small "loving cup" trophy. Larger versions were given to children in the various competition categories. Categories included best fancy costume, original constume, fancy float, original float and overall best baby. The winning babies/children would be crowned by the Queen of Mardi Gras, who had celebrated her own crowning earlier in the week.
Prizes at Asbury Park ranged from $500 cash to a new car. At Coney Island, the prize was "only" a trophy, a mention in the Eagle, and the chance for fame. This was enough for parents to go to extremes. In 1954, eight-year-old Joan Megerle rode her own horse to victory in the best original costume as (a fully clothed) Lady Godiva.
That same year, five-year-old Bobbie DeMott braved an unseasonably chilly September afternoon as a hula girl with matching float. I think she went home with only a standard participants trophy. Personally, I think Bobbie is rather cute. But it's tough to compete with live animals.
And then of course there were the ringers from out of town. In 1931, seven year-old William Aitken, Jr. of Newark, New Jersey, took the grand prize for "Original Float" in two other parades--Asbury Park and Belvedere Beach--before nabbing trophy number three at Coney Island. All three of William's winning floats were related to fire because his father was a fireman. Now there's some hot competition.