It used to have live animals instead of giant balloons! Here’s the history of Macy’s famous Thanksgiving Parade.
The dropping of the ball, the lighting of the tree—New York City is home to many iconic traditions during the holiday season. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of them, and it holds a special place for Americans all across the country. In its core, hidden under all its marvelous grandeur and extravaganza, it represents the modern spirit of Thanksgiving. And as far as traditions go, it’s one of the most endearing to watch. It certainly helps that Macy’s event is the largest parade in the world.
We know the effect several marketing campaigns can have over culture and traditions. De Beer’s “A Diamond Is Forever” did much for the wedding ring custom, as did Coca Cola’s Christmas ads in the 1920s (which, though they didn’t invent Santa Claus, are responsible for the popularization of his current look).
Speaking of the 1920s, they also happen to be key for the beloved Macy’s parade. The department store was booming during that decade, and by 1924 it occupied a whole city block on Herald Square, all the way to 7th Avenue. So, taking advantage of their position and noticeable presence, Macy’s president Herbert Strauss figured it would be a good move to invite potential clients for a pre-Christmas shopping spree. And what better way to do so than to host an exuberant celebration to live up to Macy’s grand name? “A parade!,” the company yelled, and people responded to their call.
In its first iteration, the route was three times longer than it is today, but the parade was also much smaller. However, with bands, floats, customs, marching employees, and even live animals borrowed from the zoo, the event was massive for the time. Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square (as has been ever since), and over 250,000 thousand people attended to see it all. Macy’s strategy had paid off: the parade was such a huge success that the store declared it would become a yearly event.
Each subsequent year the parade became bigger, and its popularity increased accordingly. By 1927, the live animals were fortunately replaced with big balloons—a now quintessential feature of Macy’s parade. Who would recognize the celebration without its signature inflatable giants? We owe this move to a man named Anthony Frederick Sarg, who owned a marionette business. Sarg had recently moved from London, and his skills didn’t go unnoticed. Soon enough, Macy called on him to design a window display to promote the event, and he ended up designing the animal-shaped balloons as well. Famously, the first inflatable to be featured in the parade was Felix the Cat.
However, the newly-implemented balloon tradition didn’t come without a hiccup. At first, not knowing how they would behave, these inflatables lacked all the safety parameters that the parade now enforces. For instance, in 1928 they were released to the sky, but, surprisingly, all of them suddenly bursted. So, in later years, a valve had to be added that would allow them to float for days. Little by little more regulations were implemented, and the parade’s standards began to settle into what we see today. In spite of the mild setbacks, the event kept growing. And it would have been an uninterrupted tradition up to our days as well, were it not for World War II.
Unfortunately for people at the time, from 1942 to 1945 the custom had to be cancelled because the war efforts required all the production of rubber and helium that would’ve been used by the balloons. Just as well, actually. Perhaps such a massive celebration would’ve been out of place during such a brutal time.
When it returned to the streets at the end of the war, Macy’s parade was received with great enthusiasm. Over two million people attended that time, and that number has only increased over the years. Its popularity grew even further after the parade was featured in the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street, which brought it into the minds and hearts of Americans across the country.
Today, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a colossal production featuring over a dozen giant designer balloons, over 30 floats, 1,500 dancers, 750 clowns, several marching and professional bands, and more than 8,000 participants. 3.5 million people attend it, and its televised broadcast has more than 50 million viewers. When you take all those impressive numbers into account, it’s easy to see how Macy’s event holds the title of the biggest parade in the world.
The parade takes place on Thanksgiving day, which in 2019 falls on Thursday, November 28. It kicks off at 9am and ends around noon, going from 77th Street and Central Park all the way to Macy’s Herald Square (through 34th Street) for Santa’s crowning moment. For more information, you can visit Macy’s official page. You really should check it out now that you know a bit more about its history. And, regardless of where you are or what you’ll be doing, we hope you have a great Thanksgiving!
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