by Janet Spencer

In 1920, Gimbel’s Department Store in Philadelphia sponsored a Thanksgiving parade that wound around downtown and ended at the door to their store. It was all a gimmick designed to promote their new “Toyland” display. This was the nation’s first Thanksgiving parade, and it’s still held annually in Philadelphia even though the last Gimbel’s store closed in 1987. The Gimbel’s parade served as the inspiration for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Keep reading for more details!   

A FLAGSHIP STORE

Named after early partner Rowland Macy, Macy’s Department Store prospered during the Civil War and eventually became a nationwide chain of outlets. In 1924, Macy’s flagship location on Herald Square in New York City became the largest single store in the world, taking up an entire city block. The director never forgot the hullabaloo of Gimbel’s parade and felt that a Thanksgiving Day Parade would be the perfect way to show off the rapidly expanding store, bringing shoppers in by the droves.

• The first Macy’s Day Parade was a humble affair, featuring a two-block procession consisting of three horse-drawn floats, four marching bands, a number of costumed employees, and several zoo animals.

Zinn Music Shop

The marchers in that first parade followed a route that was over six miles (9.6 km) long, ending at Macy’s 34th Street entrance. A crowd estimated at 250,000 lined the streets. Santa was crowned “King of the Kiddies” and enthroned on an ornate seat upon the balcony overlooking the entrance to the store. Fans and followers flocked inside.

• The event was so successful that the director soon announced that a bigger, better parade would be held the following year. In the years since, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become the biggest and most expensive annual parade in the world.

• In 1927 a puppeteer was hired to design the storefront window displays for Macy’s. With the help of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, he also created animal-shaped rubber balloons for the parade. They were filled with air and store employees held them aloft using stilt-like sticks. These balloon animals soon became the parade’s main attraction, increasing in size and scope each year. The following year, the balloons were filled with helium and held down with tethers.

• Between 1929 and 1931, the massive balloons were released at the end of the parade route and allowed to fly away. The helium-filled contraptions often stayed aloft for up to ten days, returning to earth miles away. A tag attached to the remains entitled the bearer to redeem a reward at Macy’s, usually in the form of a gift certificate. This tradition was scrapped when a balloon interfered with the propellers on a plane, nearly causing a crash. Also, many people made up counterfeit tags and insisted on collecting the reward. Now the deflated balloons are carefully stored in a warehouse in nearby New Jersey, along with all the other accouterments of the parade.   

• The only years when the parade was canceled were the war years 1942-1944, when rubber and helium were in short supply.

The parade’s popularity got a big boost when the 1947 blockbuster hit film “Miracle on 34th Street” featured footage of the parade, with Santa waving from the balcony over Macy’s front door on 34th Street. The following year the parade was televised for the first time. It has attracted ever-increasing viewership since.

• Just how big are the modern balloons? Kermit the Frog holds 5,220 cubic feet of helium, enough to fill 10,440 average-size 18-inch Mylar balloons. The arm on the Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger was the size of a school bus. If the Kool-Aid Man was full of Kool-Aid, there would be 10,000 gallons of it. Four million crescent rolls could be made from the 54-foot-tall (16m) Pillsbury Doughboy if it were made of dough.

• The most popular balloon has been the Peanuts character Snoopy, who first appeared in 1968. Since then, Snoopy has enjoyed eight different re-designs and has participated in 42 parades, more than any other character. When a poll for “favorite balloon” was held after the 2022 parade, Snoopy got 93% of the vote. Charlie Brown, Papa Smurf, and the Ghostbusters’ Pillsbury Doughboy trailed far behind.

• The helium used in the balloons comes from the world’s second-largest helium plant which is located in Otis, Kansas. The gas is purified and then compressed into giant high-pressure tubes which are shipped to New York City on semi-trucks. Specialized lines the size of fire hoses are fitted with nozzles that fill each balloon. Although it takes several hours to inflate each balloon, it only takes about 15 minutes to deflate them. The escaping helium is not recaptured during deflation, but escapes into the atmosphere.

• In 1989, New York City had its first white Thanksgiving in 51 years. Central Park received 4.4 inches (11 cm) of snow, a record amount. Still, nearly 2 million undaunted people turned out for the parade.

Companies sponsoring balloons have to pay for their construction, done at a warehouse in New Jersey. There’s also the parade entry fee of    $190,000 for newcomers, but only $90,000 for repeat customers. The company must pay for their own helium and ground crew. In return, each balloon is guaranteed a full two minutes of national coverage as the parade passes by the “Today Show” studios, where the MCs extoll the virtues of the corporate sponsor. Consider that an average 30-second ad on a national network runs $100,000 and the deal isn’t so bad.

• Generally, around 700 people riding on floats need costumes, so 200 costume fitters are on hand. When the parade ends, costumes are packed into ten trucks and sent back to the New Jersey warehouse for storage.

• Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are participants in the parade, usually consisting of around 800 clowns, 12 marching bands, 28 floats with cast and crew, nine performance groups, various celebrities, the Rockettes, and the entire cast of various Broadway shows.

• About 3.5 million people see the parade in person, packing the streets over the 2.5-mile (4 km) route. That works out to 132 spectators per foot along the route, packed in like sardines and stacked up on grandstands. Attendance at the parade is approximately equal to the entire population of Connecticut.

• Around 50 million viewers tune into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from home each year, working out to about one in every seven Americans. This makes it one of the biggest annual televised events in America. Still, the Super Bowl attracts over 100 million viewers every January.

• If you want to volunteer to work at the parade, you’re out of luck, as only city employees, Macy’s employees and their families, and employees of the corporate sponsors are allowed.