A History of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

The annual Macy's Thanksgiving Parade has come to be as much a national holiday tradition as the food favorites that grace the tables of families. Loved ones dress in bulky coats and winter gear, bundle up their excitement and head to a two-mile stretch starting along Central Park West at Columbus Circle or huddle in front of a television to catch the sights. As the sponsoring retail giant, Macy's, has made known, the parade did not start as a Thanksgiving ritual at all.

A Brief History

In 1924, when Macy's expanded its flagship location in Manhattan's Herald Square to 1 million square feet, or an entire city block, the store wanted to celebrate the accomplishment of acquiring other stores and having more to offer its customers. Owners and managers began to bill the expanded store that stretched along 34th Street from Broadway to Seventh Avenue as the "World's Largest Store." They rationalized that a Thanksgiving morning parade would entice the right kind of festive mood among holiday lovers and shoppers to boost purchasing excitement for the approaching Christmas season. The original parade capitalized on the timing of Thanksgiving when family members would likely be all gathered in one spot and hoped the timing would sustain enthusiasm for Christmas.

The idea of promoting Christmas this way was not an original idea. In Philadelphia, Gimbel Brothers Department Store had staged a small parade with 50 people 4 years earlier, and J.L. Hudson's Department Store in Detroit had held a parade earlier in 1924. Macy's was the first to host the parade in New York. People did not care for the tradition of children dressing in ragged clothing with paint on their faces to beg for money, food or other treats, so a parade was a welcome change. Not only was it a great boon to Christmas sales for retailers, but it was also the precursor to any annual holiday football game.
Macys Parade History
The first parade, which was 6 miles long and lasted for 3 hours, featured floats that highlighted favorite Mother Goose nursery rhymes like Little Red Riding Hood, marching bands, Macy's employees dressed like clowns and Santa Claus for a finale. Organizers even borrowed animals like elephants, monkeys and camels from the local Central Park Zoo to make the parade seem more like a circus.

Because kids were known to stay gleeful at the idea of Santa Claus, Macy's gave him several key tasks during that first parade. After arriving at the flagship store in Herald Square when the parade was over, Santa climbed a ladder and sat on a gold throne above the new store's signage. He then blew into a trumpet and triggered a window display, "The Fair Frolics of Wondertown," to be revealed. The Mother Goose floats that had been an integral part of the parade had been a hint of what was to come. A 75-foot long window was full on Mother Goose puppets on a moving belt having a parade of their own. In the truest sense, art was imitating life.

The animals did not work well in subsequent parades. The did not have the resolve to stay obedient for the 6-mile march and often, they made loud noises and gestures that frightened children attending the parade. Macy's made the decision to exclude live animals and started using oversized helium balloons instead in 1927. The first balloon, a replica of Felix the Cat, was designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg, a German puppeteer and theatrical designer.
Notable Parade Changes Over the Years

Since 1952, parade-goers have been able to watch the parade from the comfort of their own homes. The parade had a single logo up until 2005. It was a simple red star in a yellow central circle, surrounded by an outer red circle with the words "Thanksgiving Day Parade" and featuring a blue ribbon across the center with the Macy's name. A special variation of this logo was used in 2006 featuring some of the most prominent balloons from the parade's history, including Uncle Sam, Tom Turkey, Macy's Star, Gnome, Toy Soldier and Chloe the Clown. Since 2006, each annual parade has its own logo.

There has also been a move away from some parade traditions. Starting with the end of the 1928 parade, participants released the balloons, which burst shortly afterward. Balloons from 1929 were redesigned with a safety release valve that kept them afloat for a few days before they deflated and landed. Each one had a return address stitched into it and offered gift certificates and rewards for people who found the balloons and mailed them back to Macy's. The balloon release was canceled after 1931 when a pilot, Col. Clarence Chamberlin, who was the second man to fly a fixed-wing aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean with the first transatlantic passenger, snagged the Felix the Cat balloon, brought it down at Floyd Bennett Field and won $25. 

One of the most notable changes with the parade has been the number of attendees. The event has grown massively since that first parade of 50 people moving 6 miles. The distance now is 2.65 miles from the Upper West Side to Herald Square and boasts 3.5 million live attendees and more than 5 million people who watch on television. The original name of the parade was the Macy's Christmas Parade, but organizers changed the name to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927. There have only been 3 years when a Macy's parade was not held on Thanksgiving morning: 1943, 1944 and 1945. The helium for balloons and other resources were reserved for other uses during World War II.

One of the reasons the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade appeals to so many people across generations, cultures and belief systems is because it always evokes a sense of childhood and nostalgia. Everyone who has ever been a kid can identify with the idea of Santa Claus, oversized balloon characters, the blasts and formations of marching bands and holiday excitement. Macy's gives every person watching a chance to be a kid again.