History of New York City’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

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Hippo Balloon circa 1940, Times Square, Manhattan, NY (Buzzfeed.com)

Hippo Balloon circa 1940, Times Square, Manhattan, NY (Buzzfeed.com)

If waking up on Thanksgiving, hopping on the sofa in the family room and scrambling to turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a tradition you’re fond of, then you’re not alone! I was lucky enough to grow up being able to go to the parade every year with my family and watch dreamily as the floats went by. After years and years of admiring the classic balloons, The Rockettes, the Broadway performances and Santa’s grand arrival at the end of the parade I’ve found myself wondering more about the origin of this iconic parade.

Photo: Lomography.com

A crowd outside of Macy’s circa 1956 watching the parade (Lomography.com)

Starting in 1924 the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade that we’re all so familiar with today started thanks to Macy’s. To showcase Macy’s new expansion and title as the “world’s largest store” they decided to throw a parade on Thanksgiving morning to celebrate. Employees dressed up in all different types of costumes from clowns to cowboys and traveled from Harlem to Herald Square with animals from the Central Park Zoo.

Photo: History.com

Tom the Turkey float going down the parade street in 1984 (History.com)

Despite the fact that the parade was on Thanksgiving, it was actually to celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday and was originally called “Macy’s Christmas Parade”. They hoped that it would get its customers in the shopping mindset for the holidays. Much like we’re use to seeing now when we are spectators at the parade, Santa Claus was last to arrive in Herald Square outside of Macy’s. At the first parade in 1924 Santa made his big debut where he was also crowned the “king of kiddies”.

Photo: History.com

Santa’s first appearance at the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924 (History.com)

On the morning of November 27th in 1924 the parade started at 145th Street and Convent Avenue at 9 AM. Although the parade interfered with the time of mass at church, it started at this early time so that spectators would have enough time to get to the big football game between Syracuse and Columbia universities later that day.

The first balloon to hit the parade was a helium-filled Felix the Cat in 1927. This marked the start of the tradition that brings in 3.5 million spectators in New York City and over 50 million television viewers.

Photo: Amny.com

Central Park zoo animals participating in the first parade in 1924 (Amny.com)

Macy’s promised spectators a “marathon of mirth” in their full page advertisements leading up to the big day and that is certainly what the people got. During the first parade in 1924 animals from the Central Park zoo such as bears, elephants, monkeys and camels marched in the parade. This was the first and only time this happened though because many young viewers were scared (rightfully so). Since they weren’t able to use the animals again they needed something to replace them with that would still give the parade a special signature.

Photo: Theweek.com

Felix the Cat balloon debuting at the 1927 parade (Theweek.com)

They decided that the logical choice would be to go with oversized balloons of beloved characters at the time. It’s crazy to think that the reason we have those iconic balloons today is because the zoo animals were too scary. The first balloon to hit the parade was a helium-filled Felix the Cat in 1927. This marked the start of the tradition that brings in 3.5 million spectators in New York City and over 50 million television viewers.

Photo: Smithsonian.com

The first few balloons designed by Sarg for the parade (Smithsonian.com)

The first balloons were designed by a puppeteer by the name of Anthony Frederick Sarg. The holiday window displays at Macy’s during that first parade were designed by Sarg. He was also the director and creator of the festivities and was the man who introduced the balloon characters during the fourth annual parade.

Photo: Businessinsider.com

The Mickey balloon debuted at the 1934 parade (Businessinsider.com)

The first balloons were actually filled with oxygen rather than helium and were a substantially smaller size and low to the floor. The Macy’s employees at the time were drafted and used as temporary puppeteers to prop up the new characters and guide them down the streets. It wasn’t until 1928 when the grand reveal of the newest helium-filled balloons arrived soaring about New York City. It was a crowd pleaser to say the least.

Photo: Beautifuldecay.com

The dachshund balloon floating through Manhattan in 1950 (Beautifuldecay.com)

The balloons were designed with easy release valves, which made it very easy for the balloons to soar higher and higher above the city landscape. Over the next four years a tradition came about where Macy’s would offer rewards to anyone who was able to capture the too-high balloons and return them. Macy’s would stitch return addresses into the balloons so that when they would eventually land, whoever found them would receive a $100 cash reward. Many times the balloons ended up floating too far off and landing in Long Island, The East River and off to sea. This fun game continued until 1932 when a daredevil pilot by the name of Annette Gipson tried to capture the balloons with her plane and almost crashed as a result.

Photo: Huffingtonpost.com

Betty White and Lorne Greene at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1965 (Huffingtonpost.com)

In 1952 the parade started to be nationally televised on NBC and still till this day you can tune in and find your favorite personalities hosting the parade as it goes by. While we’re quite familiar with the floats and performances in the parade that we know today, these traditions didn’t start until much later on. The famous kicks of the Rockettes weren’t seen until 1957, but we’ve seen them annually at the parade ever since. The first float to make an appearance at the parade was in 1971 when Tom the Turkey was revealed. The first Broadway performance wasn’t until 1980 with a number from the cast of Pirates of Penzance.

Photo: Vanityfair.com

The Rockettes performing at the parade in 1964 (Vanityfair.com)

This year when you tune in to watch the parade, remember to think about the history of this tradition and the long way its come since 1924! Oh, and be sure to surprise your family with all of the new facts you’ve learned!