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This Month in Business History: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

November 16, 2021 • Sam Grabel

There are a few shared cultural events that we as Americans hold dear to our hearts: the Super Bowl, fireworks on the Fourth of July, the Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve, and, of course, Thanksgiving. While the day itself has several staple components—including toiling away in the kitchen, overindulging on turkey and sides, arguing about politics with your family and watching the Detroit Lions play—one well-worn favorite is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Macy’s, the famed department store founded in 1858 as R.H. Macy & Co., first put on the parade on Thanksgiving Day in 1924. Despite the date, Macy’s did not intend the parade to be a Thanksgiving celebration. Earlier that year, Macy’s had expanded its flagship location in Herald Square, growing to 1 million square feet of retail space. The parade was thus intended to be a kickoff to the holiday season and a tactic to attract shoppers. Macy’s centered the parade around its theme for that year’s Christmas window dressings: “Fairyfolk Frolics” of Wondertown.

That first year, the parade did not feature the famous balloon floats that have since become a hallmark of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Instead, according to The New York Times, the lineup consisted of a “retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats” featuring “personages from Toyland” such as Little Miss Muffet, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Red Riding Hood, and Three Men in a Tub. The animals included bears, elephants, camels, donkeys and goats on loan from the Central Park Zoo. The parade only featured animals for a few more years, as they frightened the children.

While much has changed since that first parade, one feature has remained constant: the presence of Santa Claus. Following the 1924 procession of supporting characters, which started on the corner of Convent Avenue and 145th Street, came Kris Kringle. The Times reported that at the conclusion of the route, Santa climbed atop the marquee above the department store’s 34th Street entrance to a throne where he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” Upon his coronation, a trumpet sounded, signaling the unveiling of the window displays to the estimated 10,000 revelers in attendance.

Other aspects of the parade have evolved over the years. In 1927, Macy’s introduced balloons to replace the live animals previously featured in the parade. That year’s balloons were manufactured by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, and featured characters such as Felix the Cat. At the end of the parade route, the balloons were released into the air—where they summarily popped due to the difference in air pressure. The following year, Macy’s beefed up the balloons’ construction and began offering a $100 reward to anyone who returned one. Macy’s eventually stopped releasing the balloons when a pilot nearly crashed while trying to retrieve one in an airplane. In the years since, the parade has featured balloon versions of pop culture characters that capture the American zeitgeist, such as Mickey Mouse, Bullwinkle, Snoopy and SpongeBob.

Macy's Day Parade
Image courtesy of Flickr user slgkck

The parade, which was an instant hit, has become a beloved annual Thanksgiving tradition. It has continued during economic crises and following presidential assassinations. While Macy’s considered calling off the parade in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the store felt that throwing the parade would “raise the national spirit.” In fact, the parade has run every year since 1924, except for three years during World War II when both helium and rubber were in short supply due to the war effort. When it resumed in 1945, the parade hosted 2 million spectators, an exponential rise in attendance from just 20 years earlier.

2020 featured a pared-down version of the parade to comply with COVID-19 protocols. Instead of a long procession, the event was designed for TV broadcast and pre-filmed around Herald Square over several days. It featured socially distanced and masked performers, with an emphasis on Broadway shows such as “Hamilton,” “Mean Girls” and “Jagged Little Pill.” With people confined to their homes, the parade boasted a viewership of nearly 22 million, making it the most watched telecast of the year since the Oscars that February.

This year promises a return to an in-person multi-mile parade route, with organizers taking COVID precautions and protocols very seriously. It remains to be seen whether turnout will rival the normally expected 2 million to 3 million people who line the route. However, one thing is for certain: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will remain an important part of Thanksgiving tradition for many families across the United States and expats living abroad.

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