Mardi Gras, which translates as "Fat Tuesday," refers to both the day before Lent, the Christian season of penitence, and, in New Orleans, the festive season that begins 12 days after Christmas, with private, masked balls and public parades.
The celebration was imported to Louisiana by French settlers in the late 1600s. The city's official tourism website traces the throwing of baubles to 1871, when a float rider masking as Santa Claus gave out gifts from float No. 24 during the Twelfth Night Revelers parade. But Schindler said the practice began in earnest in the 1920s, when some riders began regularly arming themselves with small satchels full of trinkets.
"What began with one little sack of favors quickly morphed into several sacks, and people throwing their hands up," he said. "Some of the old-line krewes didn't even embrace it until World War II. All of the money and effort went into the floats and the costumes."
The beads were originally made of glass, and imported from the former Czechoslovakia, which had a centuries-old bead-making industry. Cheaper beads arrived from Japan and Hong Kong in the 1960s.
The beads were eventually replaced by plastic beads from China. The manufacturing process was chronicled in the 2005 documentary "Mardi Gras: Made in China." The movie, with its depictions of harsh labor conditions at one bead factory, has become a key catalyst for the green Carnival movement. Filmmaker David Redmon stumbled onto the topic after being originally drawn, from a sociological perspective, to the "Girls Gone Wild" video series, which has, for better or worse, shared the beads-for-breasts phenomenon with the world.
In the city's Garden District, artist Stephan Wanger has started his own recycling effort, saving the environment one bead at a time. In 2007, he began cutting beads from their strands and gluing them to flat surfaces to create massive, glittering mosaics. One piece, a 30-foot-by-8-foot vision of the city from the Mississippi River, used more than 1 million beads.
Wanger, an ebullient 44-year-old native of Germany, is representative of the idealistic newcomers who settled here after Katrina, infusing the region with new ideas. As a "child of the Marshall Plan," Wanger said, he felt compelled to move here to help rebuild New Orleans.
He found used beads everywhere — and a new calling.
"As a German, it's embedded that you recycle, so I was like, 'I gotta do something about this,' " he said. His first work was a bead-covered planter. Now he teaches his technique in local schools, and brags about the creation of an art form that will outlast him.
There are signs bead recycling is growing in popularity. At Arc, the nonprofit for the disabled, recycling coordinator Margie Perez said her group sold 100,000 pounds of recycled beads last year — about twice the amount they sold four years earlier.
Jimmy O'Flynn, 39, a rider in the Krewe of Endymion, sauntered into the Arc warehouse on a recent afternoon. He said he was buying beads to support the Arc program, but he wasn't too worried about them ending up in the landfill. In his experience, they never made it that far.
O'Flynn said he learned this while doing demolition work after Katrina. The beads would come spilling out of ruined attics, like memories of good times long past.