There are a few traditions that make holiday time in America what it is. Whether you watch it on TV while you’re cooking, see it on the news tonight, or crowd the streets of New York to get a glimpse, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a staple of our Thanksgiving routine.
The tradition as we known it began in 1924, when Macy’s brought the annual Thanksgiving parade into New York City. Many of the store’s employees were first-generation immigrants from Europe. Proud of their new heritage, they wanted to celebrate their new home with flair and festivity, as their parents had in Europe.
Those employees were the focus of the very first incarnation of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade – dressed in vibrant costumes, they marched through the streets of New York, accompanied by marching bands, floats and even animals from the Central Park Zoo. The parade ended at Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street, where Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square.
The iconic balloon creatures we love to see flying high amongst the skyscrapers first debuted in 1927 – in the form of the fabulous Felix the Cat.
Their shapes and sizes ballooned from there, encompassing the ever-expanding collection of popular cartoon figures, as well as some classic animals.
Many of the balloon creatures marching down the streets of New York directly reflected the cultural eccentricities of the time. Mickey Mouse was debuted in 1934, Superman in 1939, Popeye in 1957, Kermit the Frog in 1977, Betty Boop in 1985, Spongebob Squarepants in 2004… Interestingly enough, the first of only two balloons based on an actual living human being was Eddie Cantor’s balloon, which appeared in the 1940 parade, alongside Pinocchio, the Tin Man and Happy Hippo.
From 1928 to 1931, the helium-filled balloons were released into the air at the end of the parade. After the first batch burst, they were redesigned with safety valves that allowed them to float in the air for several days before coming back down to earth. Address labels were even sewn into the balloons, so that those who found them could mail them back in exchange for a free gift from Macy’s.
The parade grew in popularity each year and, by 1933, more than one million people lined the parade route.
Other than a brief hiatus during World War II – when wartime demand for rubber and helium halted the balloon production – the parade has continued, in force, for more than 90 years.
It has, somehow, kept up with the times, and has even become one of the few constants in America’s ever-changing cultural diaspora.