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.

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