Get Beyond the Beads: The 101 on Mardi Gras “Throws” in New Orleans

Ready to start (or restock) your own “Mardi Gras cabinet”? These hand-decorated throws are a total catch.

Get Beyond the Beads: The 101 on Mardi Gras “Throws” in New Orleans

The 110-year-old Krewe of Zulu is best known for its coveted coconut throws, which are handed out to some of the luckier parade-goers.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

In the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, April Blevins Pejic sits at her dining room table staring down a high-heeled white pleather ankle boot and 40 jars of glitter. Pejic is mulling over how best to embellish the boot, which she’ll ultimately place into the outstretched hands of an ecstatic and probably screaming stranger. She takes the task seriously, wiping glue off the boot three times before choosing a color scheme (shades of gold) and pattern (wide stripes). When she finally gets down to business, the result is a dazzling disco boot. This is not her first Mardi Gras rodeo.

As a longtime member of Muses, an all-female Mardi Gras krewe founded in 2000, Pejic buys 15 pairs of shoes each year (30 individual shoes are the max allowed each float-riding krewe member) to decorate and distribute into the parade crowd. High-heeled and sparkly, adorned with flowers and feathers, bejeweled with baubles and bling, Muses shoes—among the most coveted Mardi Gras throws—inspire a mad frenzy among New Orleans’s nighttime revelers. When Muses rolls through the streets for their dedicated parade the weekend before Fat Tuesday (with 28 floats carrying 1,123 riders in 2019, they form one of the largest and most popular parades of NOLA’s Mardi Gras season), hundreds of thousands of parade-goers cheer, shout, jostle, offer bribes, and wave signs, all vying for the fancy footwear keepsakes.

“It’s the closest I’ll ever get to knowing what a rock star feels like,” says Pejic. “It’s not me, though; it’s the shoes.” The fuss is justified, considering the work involved—Pejic dedicates about 150 hours annually to decorating her shoes, starting months in advance. “It’s a completely ridiculous thing,” she says, “spending that amount of time and effort putting glitter on shoes. It’s not practical, but it’s fun. And it’s nice to do something just because it makes people happy.” It’s also in keeping with a venerated tradition.

A member of the all-female Mardi Gras krewe Muses, April Blevins Pejic spends about 150 hours each year decorating the 30 shoes she hands out on her krewe’s Mardi Gras float.

A member of the all-female Mardi Gras krewe Muses, April Blevins Pejic spends about 150 hours each year decorating the 30 shoes she hands out on her krewe’s Mardi Gras float.

Photo by April Blevins Pejic

The History of Mardi Gras Throws in New Orleans
Throws are said to have first appeared in New Orleans in 1837. Local newspaper the Picayune wrote that on Fat Tuesday of that year, masqueraders on foot “lavishly bestowed” upon spectators “sugar plums, kisses, oranges, etc.” Exactly 20 years later, in 1857, a group of men calling themselves the Mystick Krewe of Comus (coining the term “krewe,” a club or organization that stages Mardi Gras parades and balls) introduced floats. But it wasn’t until 1871, as the Picayune also reported, that gifts were tossed from a float, when Santa Claus, riding with the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe, threw trinkets to onlookers.

From there, throws evolved. In 1921, the Krewe of Rex introduced the now-iconic and ubiquitous beads and in 1960 also debuted doubloons (coins pressed with customized designs), which became the first krewe-emblemed throws. Reusable plastic cups arrived in 1980, thanks to the Krewe of Alla. And while beads, doubloons, and cups still abound, they’re by no means the only tchotchkes to be caught on Fat Tuesday and the weeks leading up to it.

Relative krewe newcomer the Mystic Krewe of Nyx is known for some of the season’s hottest throws, which include their bespangled purses.

Relative krewe newcomer the Mystic Krewe of Nyx is known for some of the season’s hottest throws, which include their bespangled purses.

Photo by Paul Broussard

The Most Coveted Throws of Mardi Gras
With more than 60 parades and 800 floats in 2019—transporting thousands of masked riders and their freebie-filled bags—there’s no telling what goodies you’ll nab during carnival season (which kicked off on January 6 and runs through Fat Tuesday, or March 5, in 2019). Think stuffed animals and foam footballs; LED-powered tambourines and tiaras; plastic swords and trumpets. Imagine fedoras and wizard hats; light-up bouncy disco balls, hula hoops, light sabers, and Frisbees. Picture koozies, rubber duckies, garters, fuzzy socks, rubber chickens, moon pies, pedicure kits, bottle openers, and bamboo spears. In short, more random, kitschy swag than you’ve ever laid eyes on.

That said, mixed in with the gewgaws are bona fide treasures. Each year, 12,500 tons of beads are flung and caught, discarded, or recycled. Meanwhile, specialty throws are collected and proudly exhibited in locals’ homes—on still-standing Christmas trees (rebranded as “Mardi Gras trees” and decked out in gold, purple, and green), or year-round in “Mardi Gras cabinets” (aka china cabinets, at least in cities outside of New Orleans). It’s easy to get carried away in the “throw-me-something-mister” magic and merriment—and even more thrilling if you land one of these hand-decorated must-haves:

Zulu coconuts. The Krewe of Zulu, formed in 1909 and incorporated in 1916, was the city’s first African American club to parade. When their now-famed throws—coconuts—premiered, they were hairy, heavy, and unadorned. Today they’re hollowed out, shaved, painted, elaborately festooned, and wildly prized. Following injury-stemmed lawsuits in 1987, however, throwing them was banned, so now the “golden nuggets” are safely handed off to lucky recipients. (Same goes for the Muses shoes, so stick near the street to score either.)

Nyx purses. The Mystic Krewe of Nyx was named for the Greek goddess of the night. Incorporated as recently as 2012, it’s since exploded in size and popularity, registering 3,383 riders in 2019—and some of the season’s hottest throws. Some of Nyx’s novelties include striped leg warmers, lipstick cases, yo-yos, pool noodles, bracelets, and magnets, but most beloved are their beautiful, bespangled purses.

Tucks toiletries. Since 1969, irreverent, potty-humored Krewe of Tucks (their king rides on a giant toilet throne—just sayin’), has celebrated all things booze, bawd, and bathroom, throwing the likes of colored TP rolls, soap on a rope, and flashing poo-emoji rings. But most sought-after are their gilded toilet plungers and brushes, an instant upgrade to any lavatory.

Iris sunglasses. Iris, the city’s oldest all-female krewe (organized in 1917), is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow. In 2019, Iris boasts carnival’s largest number of riders (3,450), with girly giveaways galore (like sleep masks, tutus, and flowered headbands). But keep your eyes peeled for their pièce de résistance: glitzy, gussied-up sunglasses.

There’s a roster of other notable throws, too, including Excalibur’s wooden shields, Cleopatra’s beverage glasses, Freret’s masks, Alla’s genie lamps, Pygmalion’s piggy banks, Femme Fatale’s mirrored compacts, and King Arthur’s grails. Score one or more, and you’re on your way to a Mardi Gras cabinet to envy.

>> Next: Everything You Need to Know About Mardi Gras

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