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A Bunch of Hot Air

macys-paradeIs there any bigger spectacle than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade marching down Broadway in New York City? And this big spectacle requires big balloons to capture the attention and dazzle the imagination of millions of onlookers.

The Thanksgiving Day parade did not always boast larger-than-life balloons. The first parade was held in 1924 when R.H. Macy & Co. decided to celebrate the opening of its new flagship store on 34th Street in Manhattan. This massive parade was not meant to celebrate Pilgrims and a feast of turkey but to usher in the Christmas shopping season.

During its first three years, the parade featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo, including tigers, elephants, camels, and donkeys. However, the children lining Broadway were so scared by these beasts that parade organizers decided to feature some “lighter” entertainment: giant balloons in the shape of beloved cartoon characters.

The first inflatable star of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was Felix the Cat, the preeminent cartoon megastar of the silent era. In those early days, the balloons were built by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant Company. They were not filled with helium but with air, and wranglers propped them up with long sticks.

In 1929, balloons were filled with helium and wranglers had to both wrestle the gargantuan cartoons and keep their own feet firmly on the ground. Between 1929 and 1932, the balloons were released into the air at the finish of the parade. They could float to the ground anywhere in Manhattan, and the lucky ones who found them needed only to return the tag attached to the lost balloon to Macy’s for a $25 gift certificate. For over 90 years, balloons have floated through New York’s skyscraper canyons. Felix the Cat has stepped aside for Raggedy Ann, Popeye, Snoopy, and current favorites like Iron Man and Pikachu, but the sense of wonder these balloons inspire carries on.