Macy’s first Thanksgiving Day Parade (then known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade) took place in 1924 and culminated in front of the Macy’s Department Store in New York City, where the elaborate holiday window displays were unveiled. Thousands of people gathered to view the displays, which were designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg, a famous puppeteer and theater designer. Sarg was also the artistic director/mastermind of the parade, and at Macy’s Fourth Annual Christmas Parade in 1927, he introduced the huge inflatable cartoons and caricatures that would become almost synonymous with the annual holiday tradition.
Creativity was in Sarg’s genes. Born in Germany, his father was an artist, his grandfather a wood carver and his grandmother was a painter who gave young Sarg a collection of mechanical toys that may have inspired the designer’s imagination in full swing. boom. But it wasn’t until he saw a performance by famed puppeteer Thomas Holden, who essentially invented the puppet, that Sarg found his calling. He began experimenting with puppet designs and staging around 1917, eventually gaining fame for his particularly sophisticated puppet shows which included depictions of Faust and Don Quixote. After World War I, Sarg moved to New York City and quickly earned a reputation as a practical prankster, party life, and tireless worker. In his various companies, the designer, inventor and illustrator has worked on cartoons, children’s books, mechanical toys, advertising and of course, shop windows and balloons.
These early parade balloons were filled with oxygen, not helium, and were supported by teams of puppeteers—usually only Macy’s employees enlisted in the parade service. These balloons, like the biggest cartoon star of the 1920s, Felix the Cat (above), were cruder and smaller than today’s Godzilla-like monsters, but they still charmed and captivated the crowd of spectators who came to ring during the holiday season.
Other early balloons included a 20-foot-long elephant, a 60-foot-long tiger, and a huge hummingbird. In 1928, the parade culminated with the release of now helium-filled balloons into the sky above the city. The stunt was a crowd pleaser and the following year balloons were designed with release valves to facilitate their ascent and Macy’s offered rewards for their capture and return. The tradition that continued until 1932, when a daredevil pilot thought it would be fun to capture the balloons with her biplane and nearly crashed when the rubberized web wrapped around the wing of the airplane.
The rubberized silk balloons were produced by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and their archive at the University of Akron includes amazing images of these early juggernauts.