Believe it or not, there’s an interesting history behind the cheap little trinkets, strings of gaudy plastic beads, and sugary treats that are tossed out like so many handfuls of confetti from the floats that make their way through the streets during Mardi Gras parades all across the Gulf Coast. Much like most of the festival itself, the whole tradition of the toss has roots dating back to the nineteenth century—though those cast-offs have changed decidedly since the newly-adopted King of Carnival named Rex threw out his very first handful of sugar-coated almonds into the clamoring crowd of onlookers back in 1872. Interestingly enough, the practice of the “throw” was hardly original, as it drew inspiration from festival customs of the Renaissance era in England.
Not long after the advent of the almond-toss, Mardi Gras krewes began throwing out necklaces of inexpensive glass beads, causing such a hit that they became a tradition iconic to the parade. Old lore has it a man dressed up as Santa Claus actually used the beads as part of his parade garb, and the beads thusly became an expected accessory to be worn by all parade-goers henceforth and, perhaps, forevermore.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 100,000 tourists had begun to travel to New Orleans to participate in the city’s celebration, fully expecting to collect beads of their own. And never have they been disappointed, as beads are a plentiful part of every parade float’s cache, now joined with other Mardi Gras souvenirs including plastic cups, toys, Frisbees, figurines, and “doubloons” imprinted with krewe insignias.
Naturally, the beads used in Mardi Gras parades are green, gold, and purple—the three colors foundational in the festivities themselves. Representing faith, power, and justice, the beads are collected throughout the duration of the festival on Mardi Gras itself on Fat Tuesday, piled high and proudly worn around one’s neck until Ash Wednesday, when the period of debauchery gives way to Lent and all signs of past “sins” are tucked away for another year.
All along the parade route—and perhaps all throughout the city—cries of, “Throw me something, mister!” can be heard, and the phrase has become slang iconic to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, though those very same entreaties ring out on the streets of those cities along the Gulf Coast like Mobile and Pensacola who have taken on the tradition for themselves. The appeal is met with enthusiasm, and as the parade rolls on though, strings of beads catapult through the crowds to adorn spectators with evidence of their participation, so highly sought that devoted Mardi Gras lovers go to great lengths to get their hands on more beads. The more strings, the more reason to show them off with great pride—and as the count climbs, so, too, do the tales to be told of just how those beads might have been captured…
No matter the age of the crowds that gather, the joy that comes from the beads and trinkets tossed out from Mardi Gras floats is nothing short of overwhelming, spilling out onto streets that bear remnants of the parade that lie where they might have landed, barely escaping notice to remind one and all of the Good Times that have just rolled by.