What makes Mardi Gras beads — cheap plastic with string — so important?
Mardi Gras beads — the plastic made-in-China trinkets that are thrown from floats during Mardi Gras parades — are a cultural product particular to the New Orleans area. They are cheaply and abundantly made. After parades, the streets (and overarching trees) are covered in discarded, broken, and abandoned beads. It is not unheard of for locals to store boxes of beads in their attics and closets, where these trinkets lie unused for the majority of the year. And yet, during Mardi Gras, these beads are strongly coveted by visitors and locals alike.
There is an important distinction between the meaning that Mardi Gras beads have for visitors and the meaning they have for locals. For visitors, the beads symbolize New Orleans. They serve as a relic to bring home, documentary proof of their visit, and a symbol of their experiences. They might serve as a conversation starter or a semi-exotic piece of decoration.
For locals, the beads are still a symbol of New Orleans, but not in such a singular way. Beads might be used as decoration during the year, but they do not tend to act as conversation starters. Everyone living in the area has easy access to Mardi Gras beads and, generally, they are not considered particularly unique. However, despite the common place nature of Mardi Gras beads, they still hold significant meaning and value.
Mardi Gras beads are a symbol of carnival and thereby attached to the many themes of the occasion: chaos, rebirth, liminality, conviviality, and communitas. Anyone present at a Mardi Gras parade who does not wear beads looks out of place. The beads indicate a person’s status as a reveler and part of the carnival crowd, in which social status is upturned and attendees are equal. Not all beads are created equally, however. The more intricate, large, and unique the beads, the higher the social value.
Perhaps the most meaningful attribute of Mardi Gras beads is the lack of monetary value they have. Attending a Mardi Gras parade and catching beads is completely free. Part of the reason people covet the beads so much is because they are free! The cheap material and lack of use value is inconsequential. In a capitalist economy, freely given objects in such abundance are a novelty. However, these free objects are an integral part of an event that powers the largest industry in New Orleans and brings in billions of dollars in visitor spending. Ultimately, these cheap little pieces of plastic strung together with string are powerfully potent cultural products.