Friday, May 20, 2022

Answer: Why... in New Orleans?

Yep... I was in New Orleans...  

... at a conference with just over 2,000 of my friends.  It was a wonderful time, right up until the last day when I felt pretty sick (felt like a bad head cold + muscular soreness).  I figured it was the flu, but out of an abundance of caution, I got a COVID RT test from the pharmacy and found that I was positive!  

I was a long way from home, so I stayed, isolated in a local hotel until it was okay for me to be out in polite company again.  It wasn't New Orleans fault--it's still a wonderful city--but too many people, too soon, in quarters that were a bit too close.  

But now we know.   

Before that happened, I had a couple of SRS questions that popped up for me this past week.  Can you help me figure them out?  

1. One of the great symbols of New Orleans are the steamboats that used to ply the river. They're wedding cakes on the water, full of color, decoration, and outsized components.  They don't use propellers, they use giant paddlewheels driven by large steam engines.  One of the most noticeable parts of a traditional steamboat are the smokestacks.  In this image of the riverboat "City of New Orleans," you can see that the top of the smokestack ends in an incredibly elaborate patterning at the very top.  Since you see this kind of thing on nearly all steamboat smokestacks, that made me wonder--is that patterning at the top purely decorative, or does it have some kind of function?  What can you find out? 

I did a search for: 

     [ steamboat smokestack decoration on top ] 

to start.  Note that I did NOT include any localization information (not Mississippi, nor New Orleans), trusting that the results I'd get would be already localized to the US.  (If you do this query in other countries, you might get very different results.  In such cases, you'd probably have to include some locale identification information.)  

In the results to this query, I found a great source, (by Jerry Hay, author of multiple books about US river lore and a guide aboard the American Queen and the Delta Queen Mississippi steamboats).  In this site, Hay writes that: 

"Steamboats had tall smokestacks. The boats originally had boilers fired by wood. Along with the smoke there would often be flaming embers coming up from the furnace and out of the top of the smokestack. Those embers could and did start fires when they landed on the top deck or cargo. Tall stacks would give the embers a better chance to burn out before reaching the deck. In addition, the top of the stacks were "fluted". Fluting consisted of wire or steel mesh and acted like a small fence that would break the embers into small pieces. Smaller embers were more likely to burn out faster than larger pieces. As fancier boats were built, the fluting became very ornamental and eventually came to be considered an essential decorative element of the smokestack. Those vessels with the fancy smokestacks and decorative flutes became known as high-falutin' boats." 

It's pretty clear that the design of these steamships was very fanciful, full of enough decoration to choke a horse.  In 1886, one of these steamships was described in The River Road Rambler as: 

The J. M. White... was 325 feet long with a public salon large enough, it was said, to hold three-hundred waltzing couples under ‘seven 16-burner gold-gilt chandeliers… made of fine brass, highly polished, and then… covered with pure gold.”  

There were also stained-glass windows, ample staterooms with full-size beds, and one of her two bridal chambers was paneled in mahogany and satinwood, the other in rosewood and satinwood... 

You get the idea.  Decoration for its own sake was happily accepted, but the decorative fluting atop the smokestacks also seemed to be primarily decorative.  The spark arrestors (such as they were) seem to have been simple "wire meshes"  (as Hays writes).  Meanwhile, other contemporary steamships, like the Multnomah (1851), which served in Washington state, had fairly elaborate spark arrestors.  

But here's the thing--spark arrestors, as seen on the Multnomah, were fairly well-developed technology.  By the time of the great Mississippi steamboats like the Natchez or the City of New Orleans, spark arrestors were well known gadgets.  In fast, the patent office had more than a dozen patents for improvements to spark arrestors filed before 1890.  Most involved a distinctive swelling in the stack to contain the arresting mechanism!  

US Patent for an "Improved Spark Arrestor" (1855) 

Two steamboats in Memphis, 1906--one with spark arrestors (left) and
one with only screen arrestors (right).
P/C Library of Congress.  

But spark arrestors are something else to maintain and are prone to getting deposits of creosote from the burning wood (and then catching on fire themselves).  

So the elaborate leaf-like structures seem to have evolved from the meshes built in to arrest sparks and embers.  But as far as I can tell, they don't actually do much to suppress anything.  (They do look very cool, however...)  

2. While New Orleans is a generally colorful place, three colors seem to dominate: purple, gold, and green.  Is this color scheme really a thing?  Or am I making a vast overgeneralization?  

I'm going to quote much of mateojose1's explanation (which is very well done).  

Mateojose1 writes (I've lightly edited it here): 

Search query #1:   [  new orleans purple gold green ]

Source:  tells us that these are the colors for New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration, with each being said (in 1892) to represent three different virtues (gold = power, green = faith, purple = justice). The story goes that they were selected in 1872 to honor a Russian grand duke who was visiting. But, it's a story that doesn't quite fit the facts.

This site also tells another version of the story:  According to local historian Errol Flynn Laborde,  is this: The carnival king did say (in 1872, for the first rex parade) that those would be the three colors for Mardi Gras, but he never said why. At that point, Laborde asked why. And, after investigating, he concluded that the three had to do with how its organizers decided that the Rex parade needed a flag with three colors: Purple, for royalty ("rex" means "king"); gold, since heraldry needed a metal and gold was fit for a king; and green, since heraldry also needed a color, and since green went the best with purple and gold.

(Dan's comment:  Here are the details about Laborde--he's a long time journalist and editor focusing on local history and New Orleans culture.)  

Source: Retells the 1892 story of the three colors symbolize, and tells us that the three Mardi Gras colors are seen year-round throughout New Orleans.

Search query #2:    [ new orleans purple gold green origin  ]

Source: Another article written by Errol Laborde in 2020, which explains his findings in more detail. They date back to a proclamation by the 1872 carnival king, but it's unclear why he chose those three rather than some other choice, plus none of the other explanations can be verified. That, and the popular explanation for what they mean was debunked in 1971.

25 years later, Laborde and others who were researching were able to deduce why those three were selected. They were as follows:

* The carnival king needed a flag, which needed three colors (since the America, British, and French flags are all tri-colored). Red, white, and blue were dismissed, since they were colors for republics and revolution, which would not be appropriate for a king.

* Purple was likely chosen because it's long been connected with royalty.

* They also followed the rules of heraldry (which the people who organized the Rex event were likely familiar with), and those fields need both a metal (gold or silver [white]) and a color (black, green, purple, blue, and red). So, gold was chosen (since white was widely used), and green was chosen, since black didn't go so well with gold and purple.

Conclusion: The three colors represent Mardi Gras, and are based on what was chosen for it back in 1872 (the selection of which was related to heraldry), though a separate explanation was invented in 1892. Now, though, it's a matter of civic pride for the city, and for its Mardi Gras celebration.  

(Thanks, MateoJose1.)  

3.  There also seems to be an awful lot of fleur de lis in the decoration of New Orleans, you see them absolutely everywhere (including between the smokestacks above!):  Why?  

I started with the Wikipedia article by searching for [ fleur de lis wikipedia ] 

I found that the symbol is associated with European monarchs, but especially with the French monarchy. Oddly, its use in France seems to predate Christianity, as Roman coins from Gaul had a design that looked like it. It also appears in other countries, but it's most closely associated with France.

My next query is the obvious one:  [ fleur de lis new orleans ]

There are tons of results, but one that looked reliable is the paper of record for the city,  The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate which repeats the story of the fleur de lis as a French national symbol, but also tells us that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it came to represent strength, determination in rebuilding the city, and defiance against the storm. 

Background:  As Jon pointed outin 1604 what is now eastern Canada was extensively populated by French people. Eventually the area became part of the British empire and around 1754 most of the 10,000 French were removed to other areas. By 1764 they were allowed to return under certain conditions: mostly so long as they would disperse themselves and swear loyalty to British Crown. These people became knows as the Acadians.  

Those returning to the Canadian Maritime provinces chose to settle in Baie Sainte-Marie in western Nova Scotia, Cheticamp on the western shore of Cape Breton Island, the Malpèque region of Prince Edward Island, and on the eastern and northern shores of New Brunswick as well as in the province of Quebec, particularly in the area of Yamachiche and L'Acadie.

Many Acadians from France and the American colonies settled in Louisiana during the Le Grand Dérangement  eventually transforming the word "Acadian" into "Cajun," in the process creating a new French dialect and culture to the world. Along the way, they also brought their symbol of France with them.

The fleur de lis represents the city's French heritage. 

SearchResearch Lessons

This was a fun Challenge, exercising our ability to read multiple sources and find the answers we seek.  If there's a big lesson from this week it's this: 

1.  Read multiple sources for every answer you seek.  In all of the above research, we sought out multiple sources for every claim made.  We also checked the sources themselves (e.g. "who is Errol Labourde?") Some of these require close reading, an essential skill for the practical SearchResearcher!  

Search on!  


  1. Hello Dr. Russell.

    As you mentioned it was and is a very interesting and fun Challenge. Thanks for writing it.

    Thankfully you are healthy and free of COVID. And I hope your time with the illness wasn't as awful as the symptoms. In any case, glad that you are back to normal, healthy Dan.

    As you mentioned, virus is still around us and we need to not forget that.

    Keep taking care of yourself, Dr. Russell

    1. Once again, out of topic. And interesting. Any of you have read this?

      Haiti payment to France

  2. the perils of a modern traveller…in the age of ongoing, morphing pestilence.
    were you ultra max vaxxed? made air travel interesting, no doubt… at least it wasn't monkeypox or beignet poisoning/overdose.
    glad you are on the recovery path… my Dr. dealt with 'long covid' - had some brain fog & memory issues for a while…
    get well/stay well.
    AUA in NOLA - a convention city
    Beignet, pâte à choux SERP
    requires a mask also…

    1. I AM quad-vaxxed, which suggests that the latest variant doesn't bother to check if you've been immunized with the older versions. Sigh. Evolution for the win.

  3. "Mark Twain described a boiler explosion that occurred aboard the steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858. Among the injured passengers was his brother, Henry Clemens, who had been fatally scalded by steam. Henry was taken to an improvised hospital, but died shortly after while accompanied by Twain. Twain later wrote of his brother's death: "For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother...and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair…""

  4. The fleur-de-lis challenge seemed so obvious I thought it must be a trick question. Surely “everybody knows” the fleur de lis represents New Orleans’ (and south Louisiana’s) French heritage. Then I remembered that I recently saw the fleur de lis in a corner of the world where I was sure there had been no French influence. In the answer to the challenge there was a mention of the fleur’s being associated with countries other than France so I decided to check that out. According to (my go-to resource for Louisiana)

    the fleur de lis appears many places in Italy (including the Vatican), Transylvania, Scotland, England, Malta, Czechia, Belgium, Spain, and probably more. The influence of the Bourbon dynasty might explain some of these but not all; one early specific site mentioned here was Pompeii.

    I wonder why I/we associate the fleur only with France.

    I have a college roommate who lived in NO most of her life (until the storm). I asked her about the Mardi Gras colors and she replied: “The Rex that reigned that year picked the colors because he thought they looked good together. Then 20 years later the current Rex decided that purple stood for justice, green for faith, and gold for power.
    “That’s one theory. Another is that Mardi Gras was in honor of the grand duke Alexei and those might have been his colors.
    “Basically no one knows but we all have adopted the justice, faith, and power theory, similar to the eating of cabbage, black eyed peas, and pork on New Year’s Day for luck, health, and money!”
    Local color, maybe not up to SRS standards.

    If anyone is interested in a follow-up to Katrina, John Grisham wrote an opinion piece:
    My former roommate said that Treme on HBO is a realistic portrayal of life after the storm, also Chris Rose’s writings. Her niece helped organize the local recovery effort:

    1. Krzyż harcerski
      modified for the FIS in Ukraine
      FISU, up on the social media front
      scouts -three points
      "The History
      In the twelfth century, either King Louis VI or King Louis VII (sources disagree) became the first French monarch to use the fleur-de-lis on his shield. English kings later used the symbol on their coats of arms to emphasize their claims to the throne of France. In the 14th century, the fleur-de-lis was often incorporated into the family insignia that was sewn on the knight's surcoat, which was worn over their coat of mail, thus the term, "coat of arms." The original purpose of identification in battle developed into a system of social status designations after 1483 when King Edmund IV established the Heralds' College to supervise the granting of armor insignia.
      Religion and War
      • Joan of Arc carried a white banner that showed God blessing the French royal emblem, the fleur-de-lis, when she led French troops to victory over the English in support of the Dauphin, Charles VII, in his quest for the French throne.
      • The Roman Catholic Church ascribed the lily as the special emblem of the Virgin Mary."

      2000 year old Ksahtrap Dynasty, Ancient India

    2. Now I am wondering about the history of this symbol which has made its appearance in such a wide geographical area over so many centuries. Was it spread from place to place or did it arise independently at several locations, perhaps due to some underlying meaning? It seems to appear often in some threefold context.

      In any case, I would guess that more Americans associate the fleur de lis with Drew Brees than with European royalty.