Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Victory Through Balloons - some Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade history

Early Parade Announcement
When we were kids, every Thanksgiving Day my mother would give each of us a bag of walnuts, a nutcracker and a bowl and place us in front of the television to shell the nuts and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  We thought we were helping out somehow, even though walnuts never appeared in any of the dishes served that day.  Later, I discovered it was my mother's scheme to keep up out of her way and prevent any sibling squabbling. And it worked, and, to this day, every Thanksgiving I have an urge to watch the parade and shell walnuts.

The parade was always memorizing, punctuated with commercials for toys, games and dolls we were urged to want for Christmas.  I don’t think I have ever not watched the parade, or at least had it on while I did other things.  There has already been news coverage of this year’s parade, and it got me thinking about its history.

Felix the Cat 1927
The parade began in 1924, going from 110th Street in Harlem to Macy’s Herald Square on 34th Street. a total of 6 miles.  At first, it was just people dressed up in various costumes, animals from the Central Park Zoo and gaily decorated floats, but in 1927 Felix the Cat made his appearance as the first balloon.  In 1928, the parade’s balloons were released into the air, until they deflated.  They had name tags sewn in them, so the finder could return it to Macy’s.  This scheme didn't work very well, though.

By 1939, the first year of the war in Europe, the parade was shortened, beginning at 106th Street in Harlem.  That year, there were several balloons, including a crowd pleasing 50 foot Santa Clause and a very large Uncle Sam, who had to be re-pumped a little during the parade. Over one million men, women and mostly children lined the parade route, watching Macy's employees dressed up in costumes, the balloons and the 26 floats.  And for the very first time, the parade was televised on NBC from a camera mounted on the Museum of Natural History.

In 1940, an 80 foot Superman balloon was added to the parade. Superman almost escaped at Columbus Circle, when he began to list to one side and a rope got caught on a flagpole, but he managed to stay upright and make it to his final destination on 34th Street, along with his other balloon  pals: Laffo the clown, a 35 foot Hippo and of course Santa and Uncle Sam.  Again, more that one million people lined the streets to watch the parade.  

The missing Uncle Sam
Thanksgiving Day 1941 was almost summer-like, with temperatures in the high 60s to 70.  This parade was slightly more patriotic than in the past.  When the store windows were unveiled by Santa Clause, “The Star Spangled Banner” was played and during the parade Dinah Shore sang “A Merry American Christmas” which was written just for this parade. Some new balloons were added: Dumbo, the pink elephant, the Reluctant Dragon, a giant goldfish, and a 75 foot tall football player (nice to know football dominated Thanksgiving than as it does now) joined a newly refurbished Superman and Laffo the clown, but alas, no Uncle Sam.  There was supposed to be 7 balloons altogether, but only six made the parade.  Just as the parade was getting underway the giant Santa Clause, which was supposed to lead the parade, suddenly collapsed.  A portent of things to come?  Just a few weeks later, America was at war.

Poor Santa

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943 and 1944. In 1942, the seven giant balloons were donated to the government’s rubber scrape drive.  The 60 foot dragon balloon was inflated with air, not the usual helium now also needed for the war effort, and New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, dressed up as St. George, symbolically “slew” it with his dagger.  The seven balloons resulted in 650 pounds of rubber.

Dragon in livelier times

The parade returned, complete with balloons, floats, and bands in 1945, to the delight of the 2 million kids who watched in along the route, despite the cold, raw weather.  And it has been happening every year since then.

 I wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving

**If you happen to be in NYC over the holidays, there is an exhibit on the 85th Anniversary of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade at the Children's Museum of Manhattan complete with models of parade balloons and includes original artwork from Melissa Sweet’s book Balloons Over Broadway, the story of Tony Sarg, “the puppeteer of Macy’s Parade,” a book that has been reviewed on a number of blogs this year.


  1. This was so interesting to read... thanks so much for posting! Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. I happy you enjoyed it. I hope you also had a Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. This is a wonderful and insightful post! I like parades. We have one, featuring "giants" who walk down the streets during the Sinulog festival every third week of January but they are not yet as big and detailed as the ones in your photos. Uncle Sam, by the way, looks like he just stepped onto and contentedly conquered the world. :-)