Confetti: Symbolic litter

What’s in a toss?

What’s in a toss?  

Confetti: You probably know it as small pieces of glittery plastic or paper tossed in celebration, or a cute iMessage feature. Confetti—meaning small treats or sweetmeats in Italian—has always had a celebratory connotation. The name originally referred to Jordan almonds, and confetti often came in the form of sugarplums. But its physical components were not always so sweet. Until the late 19th century, sugar was expensive, and celebrants sometimes resorted to tossing plaster, bones, or stones instead.

Today, confetti has become a little more complicated. In March of 2021, the investing website Robinhood removed the confetti feature from its app, originally used to celebrate transactions. Claiming that the confetti was scrapped because it “distracted from the goal of the app,” a director of product management seemed to dodge accusations that the gamification of the investment app posed a threat to users’ ability to judge the very real transactions they were making.

How is it that something so innocent could get caught up in a financial regulation frenzy? When does an item go from simply existing to holding a greater symbolic value, with implications far beyond its own real value? And what does symbolism mean in our digital world?

Let’s get popping!

A brief history

14th century: Earliest documentation in Italy of throwing objects (typically sugarplums, small candies, eggs, or balls of mud) in celebration.

1670: Hannah Woolley’s cookbook, The Queen-Like Closet, includes a recipe for confetti using honey or sugar syrup, nuts, and various seeds. But the recipe involves some potential for personal injury: “Move the Seeds in the hanging Bason so fast as you can or may, and with one Hand, cast on half a Ladle full at a time of the hot Sugar, and rub the Seeds with your other hand a pretty while, for that will make them take the Sugar better; And dry them well after every Coat,” the book reads.

1808: The Prefect of Milan declares that only “chalk candy,” or benis de gess, may be thrown during parades, as sugar is considered too expensive. Soon, though, dangerous battles involving hundreds of people begin to break out, and chalk candy is banned. Some people switch to throwing mud balls.

1875: Enrico Mangili, a textile mill owner from Milan, realizes he can take the paper from his trays of silkworm eggs—used to help the eggs hatch—and give it to his employees to throw during Carnival. And thus, paper confetti is born (with a few silkworm eggs thrown in for good measure).

1895: Confetti is first used at a wedding in the UK, and its use starts to become more widespread.

1983: Casey Larrain begins her confetti collection, which set a world record for most types of confetti in 2008.

2016: Robinhood introduces digital confetti.

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 Confetti is not green

Confetti made from the plastic known as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, takes 1,000 years to break down. But that’s not the only environmental danger it poses. It can be mistaken by birds and fish for food, prompting the city of Santa Barbara to define confetti as litter.

Today, petals or leaves are often used in place of plastic confetti, though paper confetti is also a step up. You can even find wildflower seed confetti cannons to blast off.

By the digits

400,000: Pieces of confetti in a cannon at the 2017 Bestival, an attempt to break the world record for largest confetti cannon

676: Most people ever to launch confetti cannons simultaneously

10: Handfuls of petals, an environmentally friendly alternative to confetti, in a liter

1,000: Years it takes for PVC confetti to break down

3: Steps to determine how much confetti you need for a wedding with Shropshire Petals’ confetti calculator

1,523: Square footage of the world’s largest confetti mosaic, created by the teachers and students at Josai Kawagoe junior high school in Japan

0.5: Ounces of confetti recommended per table for a “dazzling, dramatic effect”

20: Width, in millimeters, of the standard size of confetti thrown at sporting events

15.9 million: Robinhood app users in 2022, compared to 22.5 million in 2021

$640: Amount one fan made selling confetti from Super Bowl LIV

17.3%: Increase in Party City’s revenue from 2020 to 2021

Symbolism in a digital world

Over the course of human history, objects have often been shaped and reshaped to suit our needs and to reflect the state of technology and the number of resources available to us.

Originally, confetti was so expensive thanks to the price of sugar that celebrants sometimes had to use mud as a replacement. Now, digital confetti knows no end. Similarly, “scrollused to be a noun indicating a limited and expensive physical piece of parchment. Today, “infinite scroll” is a verb indicating the limitlessness of digital information.

When we needed floppy discs to save our work, we had a very literal amount of space available to us. To Gen Z and beyond, that idea is fairly alien—yet the icon perseveres. A few other examples might be the magnifying glass icon often used to indicate a search field, or the map pin used to indicate someone’s digital location. Have you used those physical items in the past for their original use? Now ask someone under 21 if they have, or if they knew those icons began as physical objects.

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Pop quiz

On which game show was there an accident involving confetti in 2021? 

A. The Wall

B. The Masked Singer

C. The Price is Right

D. The Wheel of Fortune

Scroll to the bottom for the answer!

Dark patterns, payment party edition 

Depending on who you ask, Robinhood’s use of confetti to celebrate a transaction may qualify as a dark pattern. A dark pattern is a point of interaction on a site or in an app that attempts to manipulate or confuse the user. These design choices can make it difficult to cancel a subscription, unsubscribe from an email, or delete an account; obscure the privacy settings a user has chosen; or emotionally manipulate the user into taking a specific action.

Gif: Giphy

Make your own classic confetti

Sugarplums are not, in fact, sugared plums, but a small confection made of nuts, dried fruits (including plums), seeds, spices, and sugar. Try this recipe if you want to experience 19th century-style confetti… we highly discourage substituting in any bones or stones.

Sports and confetti don’t always mix

Confetti first appeared at sporting events in the context of trophy presentations. Unlike the smaller pieces of confetti later blasted onto the field by confetti cannons, this confetti comprised large strips of paper, about 1 inch x 2.5 inches.

But things don’t always go as planned. In 2009, just as the Orlando Magic were about to win their first Finals game, the confetti cannons were set off prematurely, as the game was still in play.

In 2015, NHL teams stopped using roof-mounted confetti cannons after a 15-year-old suffered traumatic brain injury when a part of the cannon fell from the ceiling. It was not clear whether this was a formal league change, or even if all teams had been notified.

And in 2018, a less tragic accident involving a game-tying point mistaken for a game-winning three-point basket resulted in some premature confetti.

After the 2009 incident, David Stern—the NBA Commissioner at the time—made the case that special effects, including confetti and pyrotechnics, should be banned. “I think they’re ridiculous. I think that the noise, the fire, and the smoke is a kind of assault that we should seriously consider reviewing whether it’s really necessary, given the quality of our game.”

Apple wants you to party

If you’ve ever wanted a confetti effect a la iMessage for your desktop experience, you can make it happen.

If you have no idea what we’re talking about (and you have an iPhone), try typing these commands in an iMessage:

🚨 Pew pew

🎂 Happy birthday

🥳 Congratulations

🥂 Happy new year

🧧 Happy Chinese new year

🤗 Selamat

🎉 Felicitaciones

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Is glitter confetti?

  • Yes, absolutely, why are you even asking.
  • No, they’re veryyyyy different.
  • I don’t care, I just want to party.
  • I have never thought about this and now can’t stop.

Sound off!

💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s poll about APR, 63% of you said you wished the acronym stood for “another pun required.” Us too.

🐦 Tweet this!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?

Today’s email was written by Sudie Simmons (used a floppy disc once), and edited and produced by Morgan Haefner (doesn’t party at Party City).

The correct answer to the quiz is D., The Wheel of Fortune. The Price is Right is a perfect show and needs no celebratory additions, The Masked Singer has quite enough drama, thank you, and The Wall… well, we’re still not really sure what this show is.