The Rich History of Mardi Gras's Cheap Trinkets

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As throws gained popularity, krewes got more creative in what they decided to toss. Logo-emblazoned plastic cups, Frisbees, and other toys are now a part of the mix—each an attempt to make one krewe's parade stand out from the others.

The glass beads of the early throws were imported from Czechoslovakia and Japan. Today the plastic throws are manufactured mostly in China. Krewes, working through a merchant such as Berger, must get their orders and special design requests submitted by September in order to receive their shipment in time for Carnival.

"My belief is Mardi Gras throws are the most shopped merchandise on Earth," Berger said. In the late 1980s Berger would buy a case of beads for U.S. $70 and turn around and sell it for $90. Today, given increasing competition, that same case sells to customers for $21 or less, he said.

One of the few throws not made in China is coconuts hand-painted by members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a prominent krewe of New Orleans's black community. The coconuts are considered the most prized throws by many Mardi Gras aficionados. But owing to liability issues, they are handed out in bags rather than tossed.

French Quarter

Starting in the late 1970s, drunken Mardi Gras revelers converging in New Orleans's historic and notoriously raucous French Quarter district began the much publicized bartering of beads for glimpses of a women's bare breasts.

According to Hardy, the practice started several years after parades were banned, for safety reasons, from the quarter's narrow streets. This new tradition, he says, has nothing to do with Mardi Gras.

"If you want to see these types of behaviors, you have to seek them out in the French Quarter, where there are no parades," Hardy said. "It's always young co-eds who get drunk. They would never do this back home, but they feel they have the license to do it here."

Nevertheless, Berger says he does brisk business in fancy necklaces that have bartering power linked to "the trend of women exposing body parts to get a pair of beads." After all, it's the end of Carnival, which loosely translated from Latin, means "farewell to flesh."

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