The Most Iconic Photos from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Since 1924, performers, balloon handlers, and even live animals have marched the streets of New York City during this famous parade.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a holiday staple for the last 94 years. Since the first parade in 1924, performers, balloon handlers, and even live animals have marched the streets of New York City in what has become the largest holiday broadcast in the United States. There are still a few months to go before we’ll see Al Roker’s live parade commentary this year, but if you’ve been craving a taste of the holidays, you’re in luck. The Macy’s site has an interactive portion that features photos and fun facts about the history of the parade (including these 11 things you never knew about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). To pass the time between now and Thanksgiving morning, we’re taking a look back at the most iconic moments from the last ten decades.
The very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade took place in 1924 and was only a two-block long procession. Earlier that year, a group of Macy’s employees who were largely first-generation immigrants had asked the company to put on a parade to celebrate two things: The upcoming Christmas season, and the pride they felt in their new country. So, Macy’s put on a parade—but there were no oversized balloons. Elephants, camels, and donkeys from the Central Park Zoo marched down the street accompanied by Macy’s employees dressed as gypsies and giants. Jazz bands played and a float carrying Santa Claus himself was driven past the 250,000 people who had come to watch.
The parade quickly grew in popularity after the first few years. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the parade went on with record numbers of audience members. After the first balloons were brought to the parade in 1928, the 1930s were spent figuring out how to make them bigger and better. Enter: Sound effects. The balloons of the 1933 parade made noise for the first time ever, with a barking dachshund, a hissing alligator, and an oinking pig. The 1930s also saw some of the first oversize character balloons, like the 1937 Pinocchio balloon, whose nose required more than 20 handlers to control.
This decade also ushered in a worrisome tradition that didn’t last long: Balloons were released at the end of the parade with Macy’s gift certificates attached to them. Whoever caught the balloons and returned them to the store would receive a $25 Macy’s gift card—equivalent to about $385 in today’s money. This tradition lasted until 1933 when Macy’s executives found out that amateur aviators were attempting to catch the balloons mid-air to claim the prize money.
The 1940s was the decade with the fewest number of parades. In 1942, Macy’s President Jack Straus announced that the parade would be canceled in order to aid the country in fighting World War II. Balloons were deflated so the rubber could be donated to the U.S. military, and there was no parade for the next three years. But when the war ended in 1945, the tradition resumed. More than two million people lined the streets of New York City for the 1945 parade, which was decorated with oversize American flags and a larger-than-life Lady Liberty.
Two years later, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was featured in the iconic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street ($10, Walmart)—and it’s been on televisions across America ever since. In 1948, the parade was filmed by an NBC camera crew and broadcast on national television for the first time.
After the surge of popularity and a nationwide audience brought by the last decade, the 1950s parades featured the country’s most popular television icons: Howdy Doody, Ginger Rogers, and Popeye graced the parade route for the first time. And when the United States declared a national helium shortage, the government asked Macy’s to refrain from using the gas that year. But as they say, the show must go on—so cranes carried air-filled balloons down the parade route in 1958.
The 1960s was a decade marked by triumph and tragedy. When President Kennedy was assassinated just six days before the 1963 parade, Macy’s considered canceling the event altogether. But when Macy’s executives called the Kennedy family, the Kennedys insisted that the parade go on to bring some much-needed joy to the American people. Just two years earlier, President Kennedy vowed to send a man to the moon, so after Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in the summer of 1969, Macy’s designed the iconic Astronaut Snoopy balloon for that year’s parade.
In the mid-1970s, the Macy’s parade got a major revamp. In 1977, Jean McFaddin became the new parade director and brought the Broadway stage to the parade route. As you watch this year’s musical acts, you can thank McFaddin for bringing more of the entertainment industry to the parade. Plus, America’s favorite television star Betty White co-hosted the parade with Bonanza actor Lorne Greene through 1972.
Hairstyles weren’t the only thing getting bigger in the 1980s: Head parade designer Manfred Bass led the effort to engineer bigger and better balloons and floats. The iconic 1980 Superman balloon was almost 100 feet long and at the time, it was the largest balloon to date, and an oversized train float glided down the parade route. And the balloons and floats weren’t the only things growing: In 1982, a record-breaking 80 million viewers watched the parade on NBC, the same year that the broadcast won its second Daytime Emmy.
From the '40s through the late '80s, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had nine oversize balloons. But in the mid-1990s, Macy’s doubled the size of the parade. In 1996, 17 floats and 18 giant helium balloons traveled down the parade route as '90s pop culture icons were featured as the main acts. Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera performed musical acts as balloons shaped like Bart Simpson, Arthur, and Garfield floated down the parade route for the first time.
The last decade of the millennium brought with it a new kind of parade balloon, too. The ‘falloon’ (a combination between an inflatable balloon and a parade float) was created by Manfred Bass and used in the Macy’s parade for the first time.
The start of the new millennium brought with it new advancements in technology that dramatically changed the way parade floats and balloons were operated. Balloons could now be given specific shapes (like Spongebob’s square pants) and a new electrical effect let balloon designers add light to balloons, as seen in Pikachu’s light-up cheeks. The whimsical Elf balloon was used for the first time in the 2000 parade. At more than 36 feet tall and weighing 99 pounds, the balloon required 16 handlers to guide it down the parade route.
And while the 2000s wasn’t the first decade the parade responded to national tragedy, it might be the most memorable. Just two months after 9/11, the parade adopted the motto, “We cannot forget but we can dream bigger and bolder in defiance. And so we do.” The 2001 Thanksgiving Day parade was led by first responders from every New York agency, who marched holding flags shaped like the Twin Towers. First responders filled the parade floats, and a moment of silence was included in the broadcast to honor the lives lost.
The 2010s have been marked by revivals of the most iconic floats from the past nine decades. The very first float flown in the 1927 parade was Felix the Cat, which was carried on sticks down the parade route. In 2016, Macy’s redesigned the iconic balloon which was modeled after the original design.