Every year on Thanksgiving morning, while countless turkeys are roasting in the oven, over 3 million people bundle up and line the streets of New York to watch the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In addition, another 50 million people tune it at home and watch the parade on television. Here is how the Thanksgiving tradition began.
Magic on 34th Street
Back in 1924, Macy’s department store was looking for a unique way to market the holiday shopping season. Several ideas were batted around, but they eventually came up with the idea to have a parade. They initially ran a series of small notices in various New York newspapers, and then placed a full-page ad in the New York Herald Tribune on November 27, 1924…Thanksgiving Day. “Today is the big day! Big Christmas parade welcomes Santa Claus to New York.”
It went on to promote “elephants, bears, camels, monkeys, clowns, brass bands, and everything that makes a real Circus Parade so dear to everybody.”
The ad worked, and more than 250,000 people turned out to watch the parade, and then scores of them followed the parade to the Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street. Santa Claus was the star of the show, as he unveiled that season’s holiday window displays and declared the Christmas season officially open.
The first parade was such a smash hit with the people in New York, Macy’s decided to host one every year. In 1927, the Macy’s Christmas Parade was renamed to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the zoo animals were replaced by huge, helium-filled balloons. The balloons were to be released into the air at the end of the parade, where planners thought they would float gracefully and harmlessly into the sky and would be rounded up later. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened. As the balloons rose higher into the sky, the helium inside them expanded more and more until they exploded over Manhattan.
The next year, Macy’s redesigned the balloons and fitted them with safety valves to avert the issues from the year before. They also fitted each balloon with return-address labels. A $100 reward was offered to folks who found and returned the balloons. Adjusting for inflation, that translates to $1500 in 2019 money.
Over the years, one balloon disappeared over the Atlantic ocean, and countless others were torn to shreds by people fighting over who would get to claim and return the balloons for the reward money. In the interest of public safety, Macy’s stopped releasing the balloons in 1933.
The parade was already popular before television took off, but it could increase it’s popularity if it were to be broadcast over the airwaves. In 1939, an experimental local TV broadcast of the parade was filmed with cameras positioned above Central Park’s Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, World War II brought an end to the broadcasts, as the war effort needed not only the broadcasting equipment but also the rubber needed to make the signature balloons.
Television coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade resumed in the United States in 1946. While much of the early footage is lost to history, footage of the 1946 parade still exists due to the 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street. Some of the parade footage was used in the film, preserving it for history.
The first national broadcast of the parade was in 1948. It was only an hour-long segment, and it was broadcast on a delay. In 1961, the broadcast was expanded to two hours, and in 1969 the parade began being aired in its entirety. But it’s not live for everyone. A tape delay is still used to ensure that it’s seen all over America at the same start time of 9 am.
CBS aired the parade until 1955 when NBC took over the rights. That isn’t to say that other networks can’t air it though. Since the parade is held on public streets, that makes it news, and other broadcasters can legally show it. CBS telecasts it to its affiliates without a tape delay, so viewers can see the parade hours before the delayed “official” NBC version airs.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has aired annually since it’s beginning. Since World War II, Macy’s has only considered calling off the parade once. In 1963, Thanksgiving fell only a few days after the assassination of President Kennedy. Macy’s didn’t think it was appropriate to have the parade during a time of national mourning, but letters and calls poured in by the thousands from all over the country urging them to go on. Even newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson encouraged them to carry on. During that year’s parade, parade flags were flown at half-staff, and black streamers accompanied many of the floats.
If you would like to get a look at what the parade was like in its early years, there is a short clip of the 1935 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade available to watch on YouTube. You can watch the clip below: