It had gone public in 1922 and, flush with capital, had bought out competitors, opened a network of regional stores, and transformed its flagship New York City emporium.
Having expanded to cover the entire block from Broadway to Seventh Avenue and from 34th Street to 35th Street, Macy’s at Herald Square now encompassed one million square feet of retail space and reigned supreme as the “World’s Largest Store.”
This was a marketing opportunity not to be missed, and so was born the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – except it wasn’t about Thanksgiving.
With all that space and all the merchandise that could fit into that space, the whole point of what was called the “Macy’s Day Parade” was to whet people’s shopping appetite for the coming Christmas holiday.
Joy in the Streets
Whatever the purpose, residents of New York, and especially children, were thrilled. Giant newspaper ads generated over 250,000 spectators lining the streets four and five deep. And at 9 am on November 27, 1924, a police escort officially started the parade to cheers, exclamations and peals of delight.
The spectacle route covered an impressive six miles — from 145th Street and Convent Avenue in West Harlem to Macy’s in midtown’s Herald Square. Reflecting the nursery-rhyme theme chosen for Macy’s Christmas window display that year, floats featured Mother Goose characters such as little Miss Muffet, the old woman who lived in a shoe and Little Red Riding Hood.
Four bands regaled the audience with festive music. And the final float of the cavalcade showcased the guest of honor — a jolly, waving Santa Claus riding in his reindeer-driven sleigh atop a mountain of ice.
It took till noon for the procession to reach Herald Square. It was estimated that, at that location alone, some 10,000 spectators cheered Santa as he stepped down from his parade perch and ascended a ladder to occupy a golden throne above the 34th Street Macy’s marquee.
Immediately, he sounded the signal to unveil the window display, and children rushed to the 75-foot-long window to view “The Fair Frolics of Wondertown”— miniature Mother Goose favorites dancing on moving belts against a castle-like background.
The parade’s success outstripped even the company’s wildest expectations and Macy’s announced in an ad the following day that the spectacle would be repeated the following year.
And so it has annually for a total of 96 years [as of 2023]. The count would be 99, but the parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 because rubber and helium were needed for the World War II effort.
There have been changes, of course. Because the bellows and roars of the live animals seemed to frighten some of the younger children, they were replaced, beginning in 1927, by more docile character balloons.
The route was shortened to just two-and-a-half miles from 77th Street and Central Park West, but the procession itself has undergone incredible growth; from its original length of just two city blocks, recent blockbuster pageants have been many multiples of their former self featuring dozens of gigantic helium-filled figures, celebrities, cheerleaders, marching bands and clowns.
The balloons themselves have exploded in girth and height, making Macy’s the largest consumer of helium after the U.S. government.
The introduction of safety measures has been another change. New York’s tall buildings and street grid can amplify wind velocity, and over the years, several “incidents” involving collisions with streetlights and telephone wires, as well as spectator injuries, have forewarned of potential disaster.
Wind measurement devices now alert organizers to unsafe conditions, in which case the balloons are reined in closer to the ground. And a city law prohibits Macy’s from flying full-size balloons if sustained winds exceed 20 knots (23 mph) or wind gusts exceed 30 knots (35 mph).
The law has never yet been invoked; however, in the name of safety, the 2020 parade during the COVID pandemic was downsized and closed to the public— being filmed as a broadcast-only event.
To expand its reach, the spectacle was broadcast on local radio stations from 1932 to 1951 (except for the war years), and premiered on network television in 1948.
Today 3.5 million people brave the weather (wettest, 1.72 inches of rain in 2006; coldest, 19° in 2018) to watch the three-hour parade in person, while 50 million view it on TV. An added wrinkle since 1996: an untold number watch the balloons being inflated over the course of ten hours the night before.
The 2023 parade will take place on Thursday, November 23rd, and will be aired on NBC and Peacock. Among its featured elements will be: the debut appearances of giant balloons Beagle Scout Snoopy and Cool Cats; a balloonicle (an inflatable mounted on a vehicle) entitled Go Bowling; eight floats, including 1-2-3 Sesame Street and The Wondership; NYPD and NYC Parks mounted and motorcycle units; a dozen marching bands; guest stars such as Minnie Mouse and Friends; and performance groups, including the Radio City Rockettes.
Although the event is now officially named the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Santa Claus is still the show-stopper and his arrival at Herald Square still kicks off the Christmas shopping season.
Illustrations, from above: Spiderman at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; Captain Nemo float during the 1929 parade; Underdog at the parade in 1965; and a marching band at the 2014 parade.
A version of this article was first published in the Blackwell’s Almanac, a publication of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. The Roosevelt Island Historical Society, founded in 1977 to recover, maintain and disseminate the record of Roosevelt Island’s heritage from colonial times to the present. Visit their website at www.rihs.us.