There are many famous traditions synonymous with New York City, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is at the top of that list. The first parade marched down Broadway in the winter of 1924, and in the years since it’s grown to be an event with more than 3.5 million spectators. The parade is also broadcast on both NBC and CBS and boasts a whopping 50 million televisions viewers. And like any long-standing NYC institution, the history and stories behind the festivities and larger-than-life balloons are certainly interesting.
Santa Float in the first parade in 1924, via Kempt
The 1920s were called “the booming ’20s” for good reason, as it was an era of vaudeville, flappers, bootleggers and excitement. This was also a time of prosperity for the Macy’s department store, and by 1924 it occupied an entire city block stretching from Broadway and Herald Square to 7th Avenue. To account for their increase in size, Macy’s was also growing their human resources, and the majority of employees working for the company were immigrants. These newcomers embraced their home and were proud of their new American heritage. They loved the sentiment behind the Thanksgiving holiday, but wanted to celebrate with the type of festival their parents had loved in Europe. With so much to be thankful for, two weeks before Thanksgiving Macy’s president Herbert Strauss announced that the city of New York would be treated to a one-of-a-kind holiday event like nothing it had seen before. The first parade was intended to be a pre-christmas celebration inviting shoppers to the store for Christmas, but as the tradition grew the parade’s association with Christmas quickly fell away.
Elephants in the first Macy’s Parade 1924, then called Macy’s Christmas Parade
The original parade route started on 145th street and Convent Avenue in Harlem and continued six miles to Herald Square. The parade itself was small, about two blocks, but the route was almost three times as long as it is today. The boisterous processional included Macy’s employees marching to the flagship store, as well as floats, professional bands, and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. The parade was a big success, and within a week Macy’s announced that New York City should set aside the morning of November 25th, 1925 because the parade would be back next year.
Over the next few years the parade continued to grow in popularity, and in 1927 the live animals were replaced with balloons. A man by the name of Anthony Frederick Sarg moved to New York from London to start his own marionette business. When Macy’s caught wind of his unique talents they invited Sarg to design a window display for the store to advertise the parade. In addition to the display, Sarg’s animal-shaped balloons made their way into the parade. They were made by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. Felix the Cat was the first balloon animal to be included in the parade.
In 1928, the cast of balloon characters was released into the sky as part of the parade’s finale, but much to everyone’s surprise they all burst. The next year, the balloons were redesigned to include a safety valve that allowed them to float on for days. Each one also included an address, so whomever found the deflated balloons could mail them back to the store for a free gift.
Despite the onset of the Clutch Plague, the parade marched on without interruption through the 1930s. By 1932, the first national broadcast of the parade took place, and the following year, the number of parade spectators had reached one million. A short two years later Disney decided to add a Mickey Mouse balloon to the roster of characters.
The Macy’s parade floats were pulled by horses until 1939, also the first year that NBC broadcast the parade on national television.
While the parade stayed strong through the economic crisis, it was suspended during World War II from 1942 to 1944, as both helium and rubber were needed for the war effort. It picked up again in 1945 with two million spectators in attendance, and the parade took back the streets of NYC, marching the same route used up until 2008.
When footage from the 1946 parade was featured in the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” the event became a prominent part of American culture.
In 1963, Thanksgiving was just six days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There was some debate, but Macy’s decided to go ahead with the parade in hope of raising national spirit.
Over the years, the design of the parade balloons has expanded beyond just familiar cartoon characters, and now includes popular images from some of today’s most prominent artists. Iconic New York artists like Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami have all had a ballon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.
Today’s the Macy’s Day Parade is a massive production and now features over a dozen helium-filled balloons. The boisterous event also includes almost 30 parade floats, 1,500 dancers and cheerleaders, more than 750 clowns, marching bands from around the country, and more than 8,000 participants.
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All photos from Macy’s unless otherwise noted