Where do Mardi Gras beads come from?

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March 4 2003 5:25 PM

Where Do Mardi Gras Beads Come From?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

New Orleans' Mardi Gras revelers will spend today downing Hurricanes, gawking at naked flesh, and begging paraders for colored beads with the traditional plea, "Throw me something, mister!" How did the bead-throwing custom begin?

The first recorded instances of Mardi Gras paraders tossing souvenirs to the crowd date back to the 1840s, when revelers costumed as aristocrats threw out baubles and sugar-coated almonds. Other, less savory characters preferred "trick" to "treat" and pelted onlookers with an assortment of dirt, flour, and quicklime. The dissemination of handouts—or "throws," in Mardi Gras parlance—is widely believed to have derived from festival customs in Renaissance Europe, where pre-Lenten carnivals often involved projectiles (hurled about after villagewide ale-and-mead binges). Some historians theorize that the tradition has roots in a pagan post-winter ritual, during which lucky peasants who'd survived the cold months celebrated by throwing milled grain into the fields—an offering of gratitude to the deity (or deities) who had given them enough food to last.

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Glass beads did not become a New Orleans Mardi Gras staple until the 1880s, after Anglo-American "krewes" had formed to organize the loose-knit festivities. Legend has it that the first parade participant to use beads was a man dressed up as Santa Claus; the ornamental strands were such a hit that other krewes picked up on the ritual. By 1900, when at least 100,000 tourists a year flocked to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras, beaded throws were ubiquitous.

Today's plastic-or-aluminum beads have earned substantial notoriety for their role in a sexual bartering system; women often bare their breasts for a strand or two. (And sometimes go the Full Monty for a particularly enticing throw.) Despite claims that this custom dates back decades, a 1996 paper in the academic journal Social Forces could trace the beads-for-nudity movement only back to the 1970s.

Bonus Explainer: A krewe known as "Zulu" has become famous for handing out (not throwing) Mardi Gras coconuts in lieu of beads. The practice ceased briefly in the 1980s, owing to liability concerns—no insurance company would cover Zulu, fearing that an errant coconut might dent a merrymaker's skull. Zulu leaders appealed to the Louisiana state legislature, pointing out that beads and other Mardi Gras trinkets were exempted from liability laws. In 1987, then-Governor Edwin Edwards signed the "Coconut Bills," adding Zulu's heavy, oblong handouts to the list.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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