The Satellites of Mercury, 1888-1892

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Illustrated program of the Satellites of Mercury parade held on Oct. 4, 1889. Filson Library Collection.After it closed in 1887 the Board of Trade called a meeting to plan for something to take its place. It would still need to promote Louisville’s commercial trade but, perhaps, a bit differently. At the suggestion of one of its members, Mr. Peyton N. Clarke, they decided upon a series of moving tableaus similar to the Mardi Gras celebration of New Orleans. Since this event was to promote Louisville’s growing material prosperity, who better to rule over the festival than Mercury, the Roman mythological god of commerce. Thus the Satellites of Mercury formed.

The Satellites of Mercury held their festival each fall for five years beginning in 1888 as the final event of the month-long Industrial Jubilee Celebration or Fall Commercial Celebration. The Satellites were Louisville businessmen whose identities were kept secret except for Peyton Clarke, who was Chief Satellite and general manager of the organization. During the festivals Satellite members wore masks to protect their identities. They also kept secret the pageant themes and parade routes to build anticipation.

Invitation, 1889. The outer flap of the invitation is hand-painted. Filson Library CollectionIn September of 1888, after six months of preparation, the Satellites were ready for their first grand carnivale, which lasted for several days. It began with the arrival of the King and his dukes by steamboat, followed the next day by an evening allegorical parade, and finally ended with a grand ball attended by thousands.

The theme of the first pageant was The Feast of Mercury. The Filson’s special collections department has a wonderful triangular invitation that unfolds into a cone-shaped hat with wings attached, representing Mercury’s helmet. The Filson library has advertising brochures detailing all 20 floats in full color from both the 1888 and 1889 festival parades. In addition to the parade brochure, The Filson library also has a hand-painted Carnival Reception programme and a tri-fold card that was perhaps part of a special invitation for the 1889 festival. The 1889 festival detailed the life of Sinbad the Sailor, taken from the tales of The Arabian Nights. References in Louisville’s newspaper The Critic and in Madison Dugan’s River News described the arrival of the steamboat

Program from the 1888 Satellites of Mercury festivities.  Filson Library CollectionShallcross bearing the King of the festival ‘Algol’ and his Dukes. “At four o’clock Thursday afternoon the dense throng of people along the river sighted a gay craft bearing down on the city from upstream. It was tricked out right royally with bright ribbons and multi-colored flags.” The gorgeous vessel steamed up and down the levee twice “as if in conscious enjoyment of its own gaudy toggery.”

Ben Hur was the theme of the October 1890 Satellites of Mercury celebration. The parade was the “grandest of its kind,” and the Queen of the Ball was soon-to-be well-known artist Enid Yandell. Thousands of locals and out-of-state visitors spent thousands of dollars with hotels and local merchants. All of this was good news to a city that had been struck by a catastrophic tornado just six months earlier.

Hand-painted invitation, 1889.  Filson Library CollectionMercury’s reign came to an end in 1892 when the Satellites failed to gain enough subscriptions to produce the parade. Businesses were being more conservative with their advertising dollars, and without the revenue those funds provided, the parade could not go on. In spite of the difficulties, the Satellites decided to go ahead with the ball on Nov. 18. According to The Critic, “it was very sad.” The stage settings were disappointing, and the seats were hard. The Satellites took possession of the ballroom floor until 1 a.m. It is not known whether this was selfishness on their part, or just a lack of interest of the general public. Some of the problems could have been caused by the absence of Peyton Clarke who had resigned as Chief Satellite in 1890. Perhaps without his artistic vision the magic was gone.

Although the Satellites are gone, their ideas live on. Louisville’s Derby Festival has many of the same elements the Satellites used over 100 years ago: a steamboat excursion, fireworks, gala receptions, and a parade.

Invitation to the Carnival Reception of the Satellites of Mercury, Oct. 2, 1890. Filson Library CollectionSources researched for this article include Louisville newspaper The Critic, Madison Dugan’s River News, an article titled “Hang On! Here comes the Derby Festival the 20th time around” by George Yater published in Louisville Magazine, and other items from the library and special collections of The Filson.

Invitation to the Carnival Reception of the Satellites of Mercury, Oct. 2, 1890. Filson Library Collection

Invitation and Envelope, 1890.  Filson Library Collection

Volume 5, Number 1

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