“Why do we use paper confetti during celebrations?”
“Why is confetti often made out of paper?”
“Who invented confetti, anyway?”
When you’ve been in the confetti ‘biz for as long as we have, the same questions tend to pop up over and over again. It would seem that, as much as people love to throw confetti, they often don’t really know much about how the stuff came to be. And that’s a crying shame, because it’s actually a pretty interesting story.
So, get comfy, folks: today, we’re going to give you a brief crash course in the history of confetti!
Confetti through Time
Confetti tossing has its roots as far back as ancient Greece. The custom of phyllobolia involved showering people with leaves and flower petals during special events like weddings or homecomings. It was also a way to recognize the winners of athletic contests. Overall, it was a fun, flashy way to put a spotlight on the guest(s) of honor, and it may have had some links to fertility rituals, as well.
Fast forward to Milan, Italy in the 13th century. Around that time, nobles and aristocrats—or at least the members of their entourage—regularly pitched coins, nuts, candies, flowers, and even eggshells filled with perfume to their “adoring” public as they proceeded down the street. The idea was to get onlookers excited and create a festive atmosphere. It was probably intended to be a strategic PR move, too. Unfortunately, members of the lower echelons didn’t always appreciate this gesture; in the face of radical class differences, it could all seem pretty ridiculous and condescending.
Thus, it became more and more common for folks on the sidelines to retaliate by chucking mud and rotten eggs at the parade participants. Fights also occasionally broke out between rival factions or districts, with even more filthy projectiles being tossed around and adding to the chaos. Things got so bad that, in 1597, city governor Juan Fernández de Velasco imposed a ban on throwing eggs, spilling liquids into the street, and other customs historically linked to parade misbehavior.
For about a century, the ban was obeyed, and no confetti-like trinkets or edibles were handed out at parades. In the 1700s, though, the practice came back with a slight adjustment: instead of eggs or coins, parade participants tossed small candies and seeds to spectators. Sugarplums were especially popular during Carnevale celebrations. When candy was prohibitively expensive, small balls of chalk were tossed instead, because the chalk was cheap, relatively safe to throw, and mostly inoffensive. By 1808, chalk pellets were the only item allowed to be thrown during parades—again, seemingly due to its innocuous nature. But within a few years, chalk ball fights between revelers became vicious enough that chalk balls were banned, too. Citizens responded by reverting back to mud-throwing.
The bottom line is that folks had been feeling an urge to throw things at each other in a celebratory (or rowdy) manner since time immemorial. For some reason, parades and special events just amplified these feelings. Clearly, partygoers needed something to fill this niche, but that “something” really had to be small, flashy, and lacking in destructive capabilities. In 1875, a Milan-based businessman named Enrico Mangili cracked the code when he began marketing confetti made from tiny bits of paper.
Modern Day Paper Confetti
Confetti, in its modern form, exists as a byproduct of silkworm farming. Back in Mangili’s day, silkworm farmers would line the worms’ habitats with sheets of heavily perforated paper; as larvae hatched or molted, the edges of the paper’s holes would catch on their eggs or skins and help them wiggle out more quickly and cleanly. However, the process of manufacturing the perforated sheets naturally created tiny discs of paper. Where other people saw trash, Mangili saw an opportunity. He began bagging and selling the discs, pitching them to everyday citizens as a silly, safe thing that could be tossed during Carnevale. The public embraced this product with open arms—quite literally.
Today, revelers use paper confetti during all kinds of celebrations and other occasions. Like the ancient Greeks, we tend to shower newlyweds and victorious athletes at sporting events with small pieces of paper in order to express well-wishes. But folks living in that era almost certainly never anticipated that people would one day switch to using dots or squares of brightly colored paper instead of leaves, and we doubt that even Enrico Mangili could have ever anticipated the invention of confetti cannons!
Here’s the truth: you don’t need to know the history of confetti to know that the practice of spilling, sprinkling, or throwing confetti during a special event is super fun. That’s part of the beauty of confetti; it doesn’t serve much of a purpose except for being festive and decorative. At the same time, it’s still pretty neat to take a deep look at the origins of thoroughly “modern” items that we typically take for granted.
The next time you go to a gender reveal party and you see a balloon explode into a swirl of blue or pink confetti, take a moment to appreciate that, centuries ago, the same celebratory idea may have inspired your hostess to throw sugarplum candies to her guests. And the next time you’re ringing in the new year and a person showers you with confetti, be glad that they didn’t decide to hurl chalk pellets at you, instead!