“Throw me something, Mister!”
This ubiquitous cry can be heard throughout the entire city of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season. Though the “something” can refer to various trinkets, toys or snacks, more often than not, the primary goal for parade-goers is beads. Mardi Gras beads are an essential part of New Orleans society that has permeated the culture of the city in an extraordinary way.
More so than floats or king cakes, Mardi Gras beads have become a significant aspect of New Orleans life. Beads can be seen throughout the year hanging from phone lines and strung up in trees as remnants from the previous year’s revelry. But during the season, the beads are a constant reminder of what Mardi Gras means to the city.
Carnival season begins on Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, and continues until the big day of Mardi Gras. Throughout this time, dozens of krewes hold their annual parades. Each parade lasts only a few short hours, but over the course of these events millions of pounds of beads are thrown to the excited masses.
To most, beads are only important during the season and quickly lose their luster when the parades have stopped rolling. But the beads travel a long way to arrive in the Crescent City and their lives continue on well after Fat Tuesday has passed.
The history of Mardi Gras beads begins in the 1950s with string beads made of glass primarily made in Czechoslovakia. Alan Philipson, who organizes the beads and throws for the Rex parade and who’s family was the first in the bead business in New Orleans, said the Czech bead was immensely popular but quickly died as the cost of production was too high.
Philipson said the market then jumped from Czechoslovakia to Japan with the popularity of the much cheaper “bugle bead,” which is made out of tubes of glass, before again shifting to China where almost all of the modern production occurs.
He said the founding of super krewes like Bacchus and Endymion had a major effect in the ever-changing roles of beads. The high demand for large quantities of beads that these parades brought made them mass quantity throws as opposed to collectors’ items.
“At different times, doubloons and cups have overtaken beads in popularity, but it always comes back to beads,” Philipson said.
The current popularity of the Mardi Gras bead is undeniable. According to an article by the Los Angeles Times, an estimated 25 million pounds of beads are thrown each year. But what happens to those beads after Mardi Gras?
Many end up in the streets. Each year, the parades leave a massive quantity of garbage in their wake. Much of that trash comes from the beads, which are so common that few will pick ones up that fell on the ground. Cleaning these beads can be a massive hassle, but groups like Downtown Development District of New Orleans work hard to return order to the city.
Richard McCall, director of operations for the New Orleans DDD, said its cleaning teams use large manpower and a variety of methods to return downtown New Orleans to its normal state after the parades. Because of the efforts of the DDD, downtown is generally returned to its regular state by early morning on Ash Wednesday. Yet, the large amount of garbage produced by the parades remains a problem.
In recent years, groups have been making efforts to cut down on the amount of bead waste produced by instigating bead recycling programs.
The Arc of Greater New Orleans, an organization that works with people with intellectual disabilities, runs a program that turns donated beads into a useful service. The program provides jobs for people with disabilities who recycle the beads for resale to various other parades. Margi Perez, the recycling coordinator for the Arc, said they sell on average 120,000 pounds of beads every year, and they have already surpassed those numbers this year.
“People are becoming more conscious of the fact that beads need to be recycled, so they are catching more,” Perez said. “If more people can do this, then the landfills will see a lot less plastic and Mardi Gras will be better for everyone.”
Many are beginning to consider how Mardi Gras beads can change to make a less harmful effect on the environment, while still keeping the charm they are known for.
New Orleans parade manager Katrina Brees founded I Heart Louisiana in 2012 to re-evaluate the eco-friendliness and future of the Mardi Gras bead.
While most beads are made of plastic and contain a variety of environment-damaging chemicals, to reduce the environmental footprint of parades, Brees has started producing handcrafted beads made of aluminum and recycled paper clay.
These beads are more individualized collectors’ items than mass throws, and Brees hopes it will be a continued trend.
“We are designing beads that will end up in someone's jewelry box. That is our goal," Brees said. We want high fashion items. Our items are not being designed in a sweatshop half a world away, they are being designed by someone who understands the trends going on in New Orleans right now as far as jewelry and fashion."
Brees is using iconic New Orleans symbols like the fleur-de-lis and the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board water meter to give these new beads a local flair.’s jewelry box. That is our goal,” Brees said. “We want high fashion items. Our items are not being designed in a sweatshop half a world away, they are being designed by someone who understands the trends going on in New Orleans right now as far as jewelry and fashion.”
Though beads may change, to Philipson, they are an essential part of Mardi Gras and will remain that way for as long as New Orleans celebrates the holiday.
“Beads have a natural magnetism to them,” Philipson said. “I don’t think it’s stopped and I don’t think it ever will. Beads will change, they’ll get tired of some beads, but they’re always going to want beads.”