Once upon a time, some old Italian shopkeeper sold confetti to families for weddings. He discovered that he could increase his profits by selling fake cardboard confetti instead of real candied almonds. He knew that the confetti wouldn’t be eaten and instead used a cheaper material. Thus, the shopkeeper effectively brought confetti as a purely decorative and celebratory substance, into its modern definition.
“Confetti” was an Italian word given to a sugar-coated almond treat; the word is a cognate to the English confection. Historically, these almonds—also known as dragée or Jordan almonds—were used as party favours: offered as gifts, thrown in celebration at weddings and carnivals, or casual snacking.
Most modern North American confetti has lost its traditional roots as a sweet treat and is more commonly made from cheap and easily produced materials, such as coloured paper, or plastic. Curiously, the modern Italian equivalent to the modern English confetti—“coriandoli”—is also food-related: coriander seeds have also historically been used as material to throw into the air during special occasions.
Despite the English word’s specifically nutty origin, confetti in various forms has appeared in many times and places. In ancient agrarian societies during times of harvest, grain was thrown into the wind in celebration of earthly bounty.
It has been argued that due to pagan influences on early Christianity, the practice of throwing seeds, rice, and other grain at weddings came to symbolize fertility, growth, and reproduction, wishing the newlyweds both a healthy harvest and a large family. This is widely believed to have originated at least as early as the Romans.
Having largely abandoned actual seeds, grains, and bonbons in favour of mass-produced colourful paper shreds, modern confetti is used primarily as a generic sign of grandeur and importance rather than having event-specific meanings such as fertility or the harvest.
Now shredded paper blasts out of “confetti cannons” at the Superbowl, and at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There has been a value shift in the past few centuries as “confetti the symbol” has been reduced to “confetti the prop.”
Some people choose to throw birdseed at weddings in favour of rice, which has gained the reputation of harming birds—although this is in fact an urban myth.
Still, synthetic confetti made of plastic or processed plant material is less biodegradable than rice and other grain, thus more damaging to the environment and the wildlife in the long-run.
The widespread use of plastics and processed materials on a global scale has resulted in a floating island of garbage in the North Pacific Ocean. Made of pieces described as “colourful” and “confetti-like,” the garbage clump is the size of Texas.
Confetti is to special events what disposable plastic bags are to grocery shopping: archaic, unnecessary, and ultimately unsustainable. To combat environmental concerns several confetti and party supply companies have turned to green-friendly branding. The company Eco-fetti offers “water soluble, earth friendly… ECO-FETTI, the accepted, fun, safe, economical wedding send-off.”
Which is all well and good, but what of the floating garbage island? These eco-friendly products might be progress, but as confetti, they sustain a wasteful, ecologically harmful, and extraneous party trick.