Confetti. It might look like brightly colored dross that you throw at a parade, but a new article by Cabinet editor D. Graham Burnett reveals the surprising 2,500-year-old history of confetti, from public stonings to silkworms.
Here are some of the takeaways:
• The idea of confetti dates back to the ancient Greeks, who had a custom called phyllobia in which they threw branches, leaves, garlands, and other plants over one other during such celebratory revels as a soldier’s return home, an athlete winning a game, two people getting married, or, um, someone dying.
• Why throw confetti at a corpse? Sociologically, the instinct to throw confetti at someone might have just as easily evolved out of the custom of gift giving (“I can’t reach you, so I’m throwing this garland at you!”) as it did from the custom of stoning people to death. (“I can’t reach you, so I’m throwing this heavy rock at you!”) Or it could be both.
• The modern word “confetti” comes from the Latin past participle of conficere, meaning to “prepare or make ready.” It then passed through French, taking on the meaning of preserving, as in confit (preserved meat) or confiture (jam). In 18th-century Italian, confetti meant “little sweets.”
• In fact, the earliest confetti was most likely candy and other sweets. In Carnevale in Italy, in the 19th century, revelers would toss sugarplums. However, because sugar was an expensive luxury in these days, throwing confetti soon took on a dark connotation: It was not uncommon for revelers to replace sweets with plaster balls, bones, and stones. Even up until the 19th century, then, there was a strong argument to make that throwing confetti was just a slightly less malevolent way of stoning someone.
• It wasn’t until 1875 that confetti became the harmless handfuls of ribbon we throw during parades today. And to that, we owe silkworms. Really.
• As it turns out, commercial silkworms often have a difficult time hatching out of their eggs. Textile merchants figured out that you could put pieces of perforated paper above the trays full of eggs, which would catch on to the sticky shells as the silkworms pulled their way through. The reason we have paper confetti at all is because a frugal Milanese mill owner realized that he could cut up this paper and hand it to employees during Carnevale. If they’re going to throw something, he reasoned, they may as well throw something harmless.
The next time you get annoyed, after a football game, at the tiresome process of picking confetti out of your hair, remember that it could be worse. That confetti could be covered in worm eggs.
Read Burnett’s full article here.