If you go to a parade in New Orleans, there's a good chance you'll be wearing glitter, whether you intend to or not. The sparkly substance is everywhere during most every festival, holiday, and costume party-as much a part of the festivities as beads and booze-yet its modern form is relatively recent.
Sparkly sequins have adorned clothing around the world for thousands of years, but the modern plastic glitter we wear and craft with is usually attributed to Henry Ruschmann, who developed it in the 1930s. It proved to be safer than earlier glass glitters and came to replace them particularly during World War II, since much glass glitter was manufactured in Germany and naturally wasn't imported during the war. Ruschmann's company, Meadowbrook Inventions, which got its start on his New Jersey farm, is still making glitter today.
Glitter-like metallic substances called chaff were also deployed beginning in World War II, when they were scattered from planes in order to confuse enemy radar. Chaff is still used today to protect planes from radar-guided missiles, which have trouble spotting their targets amid all the airborne sparkles.
By the 1950s, sparkly metallic craft glitter was widely available and widely used for at-home crafts, especially around the holidays, and in schools. A 1963 advertisement aimed at art teachers introduced Glitter-Tone poster paint from Milton Bradley, which offered "thousands of colorful glittering particles" in what the company called one of its "completely new and exciting concepts in the field of poster paints." A 1960s dramatization of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit even suggests decorating Smaug, the fearsome dragon of the book, with a waistcoat treated with glitter.
By the 1970s, glitter makeup and nail polish became popular with women and some men, particularly gay men, drag performers, and men active in the disco scene. Glam rock, including music by artists like T. Rex and David Bowie, is also sometimes dubbed "glitter rock" due to the glitter and sparkly makeup and clothes many of the bands wore. The universally criticized movie Glitter, featuring Mariah Carey as a nightclub singer, is set slightly later, in the early 1980s.
By the 2000s, wearable glitter had become mainstream, with body glitter, hair glitter, and glittery t-shirts all becoming common looks, especially for women. Glitter also entered the realm of politics starting in 2011, when gay rights activists began showering conservative politicians with the hard-to-get-rid-of stuff, a practice that became known as "glitter bombing." (Not everyone was laughing: Newt Gingrich, the first prominent glitter-bombing victim, told The New York Times that "glitter bombing is clearly an assault and should be treated as such," and a Colorado student was charged with "throwing a missile" after tossing glitter in the direction of Mitt Romney in 2012.) Glitter is also sometimes hidden in decoy packages designed to mess up the houses or cars of would-be mail thieves.
Even while glitter stays popular, there have been some concerns about its environmental soundness, with some even calling for a ban on the substance. After all, it's disposable plastic that inevitably finds its way into the sea and everywhere else. Some manufacturers have responded by introducing biodegradable glitter, often made from plant materials and designed to disintegrate over time. That might be a relief to anyone who's found Mardi Gras glitter in the house months after Carnival is over.