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The Rich History of Mardi Gras's Cheap Trinkets

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 20, 2004
 
On Tuesday the streets of New Orleans will be lined with throngs of
jubilant people eager to snare their share of gaudy plastic jewelry,
toys, and other mementos tossed to the crowds from parading floats.

It's Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, the final day of the weeks-long Carnival season of feasting and celebration. On Ash Wednesday Christian revelers sober up for the pre-Easter fasting and the penitential season of Lent.


Louisiana's Mardi Gras is marked by several lavish parades thrown by Carnival organizations known as krewes. But instead of politely watching the floats go by, spectators belt out the time-honored plea of "throw me something, mister" as they jostle for one of the trinkets tossed by masked men and women on the passing floats.

Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no need for a special strategy—such as exposing one's usually clothed body parts—to get the attention of the masked riders.

"There is so much thrown that there is no way you are not going to go home with a bag full of goodies," said Arthur Hardy, a New Orleans television personality and publisher of Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide.

The goodies, or "throws," consist of necklaces of plastic beads, coins called doubloons and stamped with krewes' logos and parade themes, and an array of plastic cups, toys, Frisbees, and figurines.

"Beads always have been and continue to be the most popular items," said Fred Berger, owner of Mardi Gras Imports in Slidell, Louisiana.

Berger is one of the several merchants competing in what has become the multimillion-dollar industry of Mardi Gras throws. On average, individual krewe members spend U.S. $800 on the trinkets. "Some people won't bat an eye at spending $2,000 or $2,500," Berger said.

Throw History

According to Hardy, who is considered New Orleans's unofficial Mardi Gras expert, the tradition of throws dates back to the 1920s. The parades themselves date all the way back to the 1830s.

The parades run throughout Carnival season, which begins on January 6, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, and culminate on Mardi Gras. Each parade is put on by a krewe, and according to Hardy, the Rex krewe began the tradition of throws by tossing out inexpensive necklaces of glass beads.

The beads were an instant hit and were soon adopted by all the parading krewes, of which there are about 60 today. Hardy also credits Rex for first adopting and throwing out doubloons. The plastic coins were the 1960 invention of the late artist H. Alvin Sharpe.

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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