Eighty-five years ago today, which happened to be a Thursday and therefore Thanksgiving, Macy’s held its first parade. As the ad on the right indicates, it wasn’t called the “Thanksgiving Day Parade”; it was, instead, the “Big Christmas Parade, Welcoming Santa Claus to New York!” The parade route started at Convent Avenue and 145th Street, proceeded down 110th Street to Eighth Avenue, where it turned downtown, finally reaching Macy’s front door at Broadway and 34th Street.
According to the official Macy’s site, the parade was conceived by Macy’s employees, many of whom were European immigrants, [as] a celebration of the Christmas season rooted in the traditional festivals of their homelands.” Instead of the gigantic balloons for which the parade is now famous, there were live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, as well as floats, marching bands, and professional entertainers. According to the Manhattan User’s Guide, “The giraffe had to stay home because it wouldn’t fit under the elevated tracks.”
The next day the New York Times reported that “beautiful floats showed the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet and Red Riding Hood. There also were bears. elephants, donkeys and bands, making the procession resemble a circus parade.” Santa brought up the rear, as he has every year since: “Santa came in state. The float upon which he rode was In the form of a sled driven by reindeer over a mountain of ice. Preceding him were men dressed like the knights of old, their spears shining In the sunlight.” Some three hours after the parade began, Santa made his way up to the marquis above the 34th Street entrance, where he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” The Times‘ account concludes by telling us that “when Santa seated himself on the throne he sounded his trumpet, which was the signal for the unveiling of the store’s Christmas window, showing “The Fairy Frolics of Wondertown,” designed and executed by Tony Sarg. The police lines gave way and with a rush the enormous crowd flocked to the windows to see Mother Goose characters as marionettes.”
Sarg would go on to design the first balloons used in the parade — Felix the Cat, a dragon, an elephant, and a toy soldier — which replaced the troublesome live animals. These first balloons were helium-filled and exploded shortly after being released (the designers having forgotten that helium expands as it rises). The following year, Macy’s experimented with a helium-air mixture and safety valves that allowed them to float for a few days. Macy’s address was sewn into the balloons, and anyone who returned a fallen balloon to the store would receive a special reward.
The rest, as they say, is history.
[The Macy's parade site has a timeline and some film footage of the first parade.]