In 1924, Macy's hosted its first parade, then known as the Macy's Christmas Parade. Macy's employees participated in the inaugural event, and the company borrowed live animals from the Central Park Zoo to accompany the floats. The parade's success was encouraging, and as a result, Macy's decided to make the event an annual occurrence.
Giant balloons made their debut in 1927. The floats featured contemporary characters and cartoonish creatures and were filled with helium. Notably, the organizers released the balloons and let them float above the city as part of the parade's grand finale; however, they did not anticipate that the balloons would burst soon after clearing the skyline.
A hippo and a clown pass by the west side of Central Park during the 1941 parade. The parade would take a hiatus from 1942-44 during World War II. Because of helium and rubber shortages, balloons were deflated and donated to the government for the war effort. (The Red Cross War Fund of Greater New York received a check for $12 for the 650 pounds of rubber.)
Obscure Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons from years past
A clown shakes hands with kids at 63rd Street as they watch the 1946 parade, the first to be televised locally. A year later, the parade would be broadcast to a national audience.
At the 1951 parade, a Mighty Mouse balloon floats over a crowd of nearly 400,000
In 1957, a downpour caused the hat on the Popeye balloon to fill up with rain. The added weight made the balloon veer off course, and eventually the cap could hold no more water and dumped gallons and gallons on surprised spectators. I think it’s rather fitting for a man of the sea, myself.
Since its inception, the parade has featured marching bands; as it has grown, performances by university ensembles and even high school bands have been featured alongside professional marching bands. Above, an all-female marching band, backed by a float commemorating landmarks in New York City history, joins the parade in 1961.
In 1963, the parade was nearly cancelled because of JFK’s extremely recent death. It ended up carrying on, but all of the flags in the parade were adorned with seven-foot black streamers.
New York's Radio City Rockettes, now a holiday staple, march in the 1966 parade
Macy's parades also feature vocal and dance performances. Here, singer Diana Ross greets the crowd at the 53rd annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from atop the Daily News' Big Apple float in 1979.(she looks scared)
A Bugs Bunny balloon is inflated on Central Park's Great Lawn in preparation for the character's first parade, in 1989.
In 1993, the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon hit a lamppost and basically exploded. Part of the lamppost fixture fell and broke the shoulder of an off-duty policeman standing below. Kathleen Caronna might want to think about buying a lucky horseshoe or something. First, in 1997, she was the victim of the infamous Cat in the Hat incident. When the Cat balloon got swept astray of the parade route by high winds, it ran into a lamp post and knocked it down – right in to Ms. Caronna, who was in a coma for a month afterward. She sued the city, Macy’s, and the lamp post manufacturer for $395 million and settled for an undisclosed amount. But that’s not all. In 2006, a plane carrying Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor crashed into the Belaire Apartments building. Caronna’s apartment was one of the ones hit, although she wasn’t home at the time. Still: weird.
Despite a helium shortage that reduced the number of balloons in 2006, the variety of balloons has continued to grow, with new cartoon and pop-culture characters making their debuts every year. The Thanksgiving Day parade now draws a television audience of more than 50 million viewers nationwide; more than 4,000 volunteers participate in the event.
The Snoopy the Flying Ace balloon floats down Central Park West during the 85th Macy's Thanksgiving day parade in New York, November 24, 2011
How They Make Those Thanksgiving Day Floats
Lots of Thanksgiving photos and the like