The 89-Year Evolution Of The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Jennifer Michalski

Over the past 89 years, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has become an irreplaceable staple of Thanksgiving festivities. 

Every year, 3.5 million people flock to the streets of Manhattan to see the parade in-person and 50 million people gather around their television sets to watch the parade from home. 

What began asa small Macy's employee-run event called Macy's Christmas Parade, has morphed into a huge production that requires almost an entire year's worth of preparation.

From the parade's first character balloon, Felix the Cat, and its original route that started at 145th street, to this year's spectacle, which will feature appearances from Fall Out Boy, Florida Georgia Line, and the Robertson family of "Ducky Dynasty," the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade continues to be a sight to see.

The first Macy's Day Parade was on November 27 in 1924. The parade originally featured Macy's employees and live animals from the Central Park Zoo. Floats, instead of balloons, were the main attraction.

The parade began in Harlem at 145th Street and ended in front of the Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. It was originally called the Macy's Christmas Parade, but was renamed the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in 1927.

(Above photo is from 1994)

An estimated 250,000 spectators attended the first parade. Today, about 3.5 million people attend.

(Above photo is from 2007)

In 1927, Marionette maker Tony Frederick Sarg's large animal-shaped balloons replaced the live animals in the parade.

Macy's first parade balloon, Felix the Cat, was filled with air, but balloons started to be inflated with helium the following year. The original balloons were made of rubber, but today's balloons are made of polyurethane. 

(Above photo is from the 1920s)

Up until 1932, balloons were released into the sky at the end of the parade. Macy's offered a $50 reward to anyone who returned a deflated balloon.

Floats were pulled by horses up until 1939.

Here's video footage of the 1939 parade, the first year horses stopped being used.

(Above photo is from 1927)

Over the parade's history, three main types of balloons have been used: Novelty (smaller balloons), full-sized (five to six stories high), and Blue Sky Gallery (depicts contemporary art) characters.

(Above photo is from 1940)

The first Mickey Mouse balloon debuted in 1934, while fellow Disney character Donald Duck was introduced in 1962.

(From left to right, above photos are from 1934 and 2011)

Today, over 2,000 volunteers are needed to handle the balloons. Each volunteer must weigh at least 120 pounds and be in good health. Each balloon is handled by about 50 volunteers. A police officer also marches alongside each balloon.

Since 1984, a majority of the parade's balloons have been made by Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, SD.

(Above photo is from 1946)

During WWII's rubber and helium shortage, the parade was halted and balloons were deflated and donated to the government.

(Above photo is from 2008)

Since 1945, the parade has started at 77th Street and Central Park West and ended in Herald Square in front of Macy's.

This year, the parade runs along Central Park and down 6th Avenue until it reaches Macy's at 34th Street.

The parade became a more prominent part of American culture after footage from the 1946 parade was featured in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street."

In 1948, the parade was broadcast for the first time on network television.

According to Nielsen, an estimated 14.2 percent of American households watched the CBS coverage of the parade in 1951. In recent years, approximately 30 million people tune into CBS's and NBC's coverage of the parade.

(Above photo is from 1995)

Though CBS was the original network to air the parade, NBC has been the parade's official television broadcaster since 1952.

CBS's broadcast is called "The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS."

(Above photo is from 2002)

Initially, the telecasts were only an hour long. In 1961, the telecast expanded to two hours, then 90 minutes between 1962 and 1964, back to two hours in 1965, and by 1969, three hours of it were being televised.

The Radio City Rockettes have appeared in the parade since 1957.

In order to be a Rockette, a dancer must be between 5'6" and 5'10½" and demonstrate proficiency in tap, jazz, modern dance, and ballet. They must also be able to perform the signature eye-high kick.

(Above photo is from 1958)

Helium shortages in both 1958 and 2006 led to less balloons in the parade.

(Above photo is from 2006)

In 1997, wind gusts of up to 50 miles an hour caused many balloons to deflate.

(Above photo is from 1997)

Broadway appearances have been a parade regular since 1980 when the cast of "The Pirates of Penzance" were featured. In last year's parade, the cast of "Annie" performed.

(Above photo is from 2012)

Over the 88-year history of the parade, there have been numerous injuries caused by balloon issues. The most serious injury occurred with a Cat in the Hat balloon in 1997 and resulted in the implementation of balloon size restrictions.

In 1997, the Cat in the Hat balloon was pushed into a lamp post by high winds. Falling debris fractured 33-year-old Kathleen Caronna's skull and put her in a month-long coma

In 2006, wind measurement devices were installed to alert parade organizers to any unsafe balloon-flying conditions.

(Above photo is from 1994)

After 9/11, Macy's reintroduced an old Harold the Fireman balloon from 1948 to commemorate those who helped in the aftermath of the attacks.

(From left to right, above photos are from 1948, and 2001)

Starting in 2005, the original parade logo has been swapped out for a new logo every year.

Besides being used in publicity material and the ID badges worn by the parade staff, the official parade logo is rarely seen. 

See this year's logo here.

(Above photo is from 2003)

This year's parade will feature five new floats and several new balloons, including Toothless from DreamWorks Animation's popular "How To Train Your Dragon."

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade by the numbers...

3 hours of parade fun broadcasted on NBC.

7 versions of the infamous Snoopy balloon have been featured since the parade's start.

12 parade broadcasts since 1979 have won Emmys for outstanding achievement.

50 volunteers are needed to handle each balloon.

$50 was awarded to anyone who retrieved deflated balloons in the early days of the parade.

87  years since the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

650 lbs. of scrap metal from deflated balloons were donated to the war effort in 1942-1994.

8,000 participants are set to join the parade route.

3.5 million people will watch the parade in New York.

50 million viewers will tune into the live television broadcast.

(Photo is from 2011)

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