1960: The year Rex made it rain
When Rex’s parade rolled through New Orleans on Mardi Gras 1960, riders threw something new: 80,000 aluminum coins called doubloons. In the process, they touched off a Carnival craze that has endured for more than a half-century.
Today, virtually every parade tosses its own doubloons, usually emblazoned on one side with the krewe logo and on the other side with the theme of that year’s parade — and often in multiple colors. An active community of collectors has helped turn doubloons into the unofficial currency of Carnival, with catalogs, swap meets and websites existing to facilitate the buying, selling and trading of them year-round.
- Although Rex threw the first doubloons, the 1960 parade wasn’t the first time fake money appeared during Carnival. During the 1930s, when the country was in the teeth of the Depression, “wooden nickels” were distributed.
- H. Alvin Sharpe designed the first Rex doubloon. To show krewe captain Darwin Fenner that they would be safe, Sharpe flung the aluminum coins in Fenner’s face.
- The 1960 doubloons aren’t dated because krewe officials weren’t sure whether they’d be popular, according to Dr. Stephen Hales, the Rex organization’s historian. If the doubloons flopped, he said, members reasoned they’d be able to throw them in ensuing years without looking passé.
- Printed on one side of those first Rex doubloons was the Rex motto, “Pro Bono Publico” (or “for the public good”), with the other side reading “Rex, King of Carnival” and “Monarch of Merriment.”
- In addition to the 80,000 aluminum coins that were thrown to the masses, about 30 silver doubloons were struck for krewe members to give to their families. One of those can fetch upwards of $5,000 today.
- That year’s Rex was Gerald Andrus, and his queen was Stella Evans Farwell. The parade’s theme was “The Wonderful World of Let’s Pretend.”
- The Rex organization presented Andrus with the oversized cast used to make the doubloons thrown that year.
Doubloon mania remains pervasive in New Orleans and unlikely to simmer down anytime soon. People clamor for them when parades roll by, and savvy, safety-minded parade goers know to stomp on them when the coins land at their feet so their fingers won’t be smushed by overeager paradegoers. The krewe of Zulu had already established the tradition of throwing decorated coconuts by the time Rex threw the first doubloons, but the introduction of the new coin of the realm helped jump-start a hunger for trinkets that weren’t beads. Satisfyingly shiny and producing an unmistakable metallic sound when they hit the ground, they’ve become a key part of the sensory mélange that makes Carnival such a one-of-a-kind celebration.