Balloons over Broadway: Macy's Mishaps, Costumed Hijinks, and Other Lesser-Known Thanksgiving Weekend Traditions

By NYPL Staff
November 18, 2018
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Balloons cruising down Broadway on a bright Thursday morning. Children asking for candy. Celebratory dinners commemorating an event from centuries ago. That's right, we're talking about Thanksgiving… but did you know about New York City's other late-November traditions?

In the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, our librarians have uncovered lesser-known late-November traditions, and shared how Library collections reveal these hidden histories. Using ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and the Library's vast digital collections of New York City photographs, we also opened a chapter of the famous Thanksgiving holiday processional that might be news to researchers.

So, sit back, relax, and enjoy this cornucopia of fun facts about parades and other holiday weekend events in the City That Doesn't Sleep. (Note: links to ProQuest articles can be viewed outside the Library with a valid NYPL Library Card barcode and PIN.)

Up, Up and Away: Macy's Parade Balloons Weren't Always Grounded

Three photographs of Macy's parade, 1932

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, 1932. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 731231F

The parade began in 1924 when store employees asked for a Christmas celebration, or so Macy's lore goes. (It was known as the "Christmas Parade" until 1939, whenThe New York Times referred to it as the "Thanksgiving Parade" in a radio listing.) By 1927, the parade included balloons on sticks; the next year, there were helium-filled cartoon characters designed by Tony Sarg.

But, get this: Macy's used to release the balloons at the end of the parade. It doesn't take long to find evidence of this in the local history photograph collections.

A quick search using our historical newspaper databases provides all the details. In 1928, the "Sky Tiger" was the first balloon to land; it touched down on a roof in Richmond Hill, Queens, and "a tug of war ensued for its possession" between the homeowner's sons and seemingly random "neighbors and motorists" who "rushed up from all directions". And no wonder: Macy's offered a $100 prize to anyone who returned the balloons to the store.

Then the stakes got higher: By 1931, Macy's added post cards with "prize-winning numbers" and released more balloons, and—it was the Great Depression, after all—people got excited. The dragon, which was one of the largest balloons, eventually "returned to the store in remnants" because a "crowd on [the Jamaica Bay] shore tore it to pieces when they brought it in".

But a blue hippopotamus drifted out to sea, apparently, and was never seen again. The hippo's whereabouts are still unknown.

Have you seen me? The hippopotamus in question from NYPL Digital Collections

Have you seen me? The hippopotamus in question from NYPL Digital Collections.

The day after that same parade, Felix the Cat met a fiery end in New Jersey. The headline:

TOY CAT EXPIRES IN BLAZE: Felix, the Macy Balloon, Floats Into High-Tension Wire

And as the skies filled with more airplanes, the days of balloons floating into the wild blue were numbered. In 1932, twenty-two-year-old Annette Gibson allegedly steered a plane directly into an ascending balloon, in an attempt to down it; her actions became front-page news:

 Woman Student Steers Plane Into Macy's Helium Cat over Queens and Loses Control.

Headline: Fliers hit balloon, plunge 5,000 feet; subheadline: Woman Student Steers Plane Into Macy's Helium Cat over Queens and Loses Control.

The Times reported, "Officials of R. H. Macy & Co. pointed out… they had warned fliers through the newspapers not to go after the balloons; that they had specifically stated that no prize money would go to aviators who downed the helium-filled monsters with propeller blades." Interviewed later, Ms. Gibson seemed blasé; she did not collect any prize money.

Finally, in 1933, the store announced the end of the nascent tradition. But photographer Percy Loomis Sperr captured a few years' worth of the balloons' ascents, and you can scroll through them in our Digital Collections.

Before the parade passed by, there were other late-November traditions in New York City.

Ragamuffin Day

Ragamuffins in costume, 1933

Ragamuffins, 1933. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 733371F

Did you know about Ragamuffin Day? Tykes in costumes, going door-to-door after Thanksgiving? From the Milstein Division, enjoy this 2010 history of the dressup holiday event.

Evacuation Day

BANQUET FOR THE EVACUATION OF NYC BY THE BRITISH [held by] NYCC [at]

1883 Banquet Menu with an illustration of U.S. flags; it reads Nov 25 banquet in commemoration of the evacuation of the city of New York by the British

And well before Ragamuffin Day, New Yorkers actively celebrated the end of Revolutionary-era British occupation (1776–1783) with "Evacuation Day", every November 25. A keen-eyed reader pointed out there were still celebrations, albeit in smaller venues, when we published this post on the New York City holiday and related Library resources in 2014.

Got an appetite for more Library resources? You can explore these related posts:

Native American History Month

Signed into law in 2008, the Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day, a national civil holiday. The same year the holiday was established, NYPL Librarian Paula Baxter was inspired by the postcard below* to pen a blog post to coincide with Native American History Month.

Hopi thanksgiving

'Hopi thanksgiving;' Detroit Publishing Co. postcard, ca. 1907–1908, NYPL Digital Collections; Image ID: 69460

*Baxter saw the postcard's caption as a pun, but it is more likely that the pioneering photo-chromolithographic firm, Detroit Publishing Company, used "thanksgiving" in the sense of return of a harvest, not a play on "Happy Thanksgiving".

Recipes and Recommendations

Thanksgiving postcard with an illustration of two children moving a giant pumpkin; it reads Best Wishes for a Good Thanksgiving

Best wishes for a good Thanksgiving. 1908. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID:1588370

If you're still hungry, heroes, feast on the following: