Photo courtesy of Wikipedia: tweber1 [CC BY-SA 2.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
by Diane Larson
On Thanksgiving Day morning, many wake up to the aroma of turkey roasting in the oven and cooking noises in the kitchen. It brings with it also the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television. Macy’s has held their parade since 1924, this year marks its 94th parade.
Parades and Thanksgiving have been connected since 1920. Macy’s is the most famous, however, this New York department store’s parade was not the first.
Four years prior, in 1920, in Philadelphia, department store Gimbels, held the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade. According to Wikipedia, Ellis Gimbel, the founder of the department store, “wanted his toy-land to be the destination of holiday shoppers everywhere. He sent more than 50 store employees dressed in costume to walk in their first Thanksgiving Day parade.”
No balloons in the Gimbel’s parade, but there were floats and Santa. According to “Pilgrims and parades: a brief history of Thanksgiving,” Gimbel’s Santa arrived on the eighth-floor toy department by climbing the ladder of a Philadelphia Fire Department truck.
The Gimbel’s parade is still going on but has since changed hands. But the Macy’s parade continues. It is also the “world’s largest parade,” says CBS New York.
It isn’t surprising to learn that the reason for the Thanksgiving Day parade actually hasn’t much to do with Thanksgiving. After all, they were designed and created by department stores. The Thanksgiving Day parade is actually all about the next big holiday.
In the beginning, according to amny.com, “It was called ‘Macy’s Christmas Parade.” Whatever the title, the now, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade continues to be a prelude to Christmas. Just as it is today, along with the Black Friday sales that begin on Thursday evening and continue through the season. And let’s not forget that in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date of Thanksgiving for retailers so the shopping season would be extended.
But back in 1924 Macy’s was doing so well that they decided to expand. The expansion of the store covered the entire city block from Broadway to Seventh Avenue along 34th street.
“To showcase the opening of the “World’s Largest Store” and its 1 million square feet of retail space at the start of the busy holiday shopping season, Macy’s decided to throw New York a parade on Thanksgiving morning. In spite of its timing, the parade was not actually about Thanksgiving at all but the next major holiday on the calendar—Christmas. Macy’s hoped its “Christmas Parade” would whet the appetites of consumers for a holiday shopping feast,” according to history.com.
In the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the employees of Macy’s, dressed in vibrant costumes, marched to the flagship store on 34th Street. The parade also consisted of floats, professional bands, and live animals from the Central Park Zoo.
At the end of the parade, in those days as well as today, Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square. Today Santa arrives in a sleigh pulled by his reindeer. But Wikipedia notes that “At this first parade, Santa was enthroned on the Macy’s balcony at the 34th Street store entrance, where he was then crowned ‘King of Kiddies.”
This first parade was a success with 250,000 people attending. In an advertisement in a newspaper the following day Macy said, “We did not dare dream its success would be so great,” History.com said. They decided immediately to make it an annual event.
The balloons are an integral part of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. In the late 1920s, Anthony “Tony” Frederick Sarg, a marionettist, was hired by Macy’s to “design a window display of a parade for the store,” says Wikipedia. Sarg designed large animal shaped balloons and had them produced by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. These balloons replaced the live animals in 1927.
The balloons were released into the air at the end of the 1928 parade, but quite unexpectedly they burst. The following year they attempted to fix the bursting issue with a redesign. Safety valves were installed which allowed them to float for days. Return addresses were sewn into the balloons so that whoever found them and returned the discarded balloon to Macy’s would receive a gift.
The parade continued to grow, reaching crowds of over one million lining the streets in the 1930s. It has been held almost every consecutive year following with one small exception. From 1942 to 1944 the parade was suspended because of WWII. The need for rubber and helium for the war effort was great and couldn’t be used for the parade.
Then in 1945 the parade resumed and traveled along its previous route. On a side note, that same route was used until 2008.
The 1947 film, “Miracle on 34th Street” catapulted the parade into nationwide recognition. The next year, in 1948, it was broadcast nationally on CBS for the first time. In 1952 broadcasting of the parade changed to NBC. In years prior to 1948, the parade had only been broadcast on local stations. The first local TV broadcast of the parade was in 1939, according to Wikipedia.
The balloons used in the parade have been made by Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, South Dakota since 1984.
The first balloon that appeared was in 1931 and was Felix the Cat. Then in 1934 was the first balloon based on a living person appeared. It was a likeness of Eddie Cantor.
For whatever reason, the parade that was created all those years ago, in turn, created family traditions. Gathering around to watch the fantastical floats, the marvelous marching bands from schools across the country, the melodious music acts, and the brilliant balloons, is a ritual for many Americans on Thanksgiving morning.