These vintage Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons offer a delightful glimpse into pop culture past
Read up on the quaint and curious stories behind Captain Nemo, Felix the Cat, and more
Today, more than 3.5 million people will cram along New York City's streets to get a glimpse of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. First held on Nov. 27, 1924, the relatively small event was called the Macy's Christmas Parade, and it featured the store's employees, live animals, and a couple thousand spectators. Renamed the Thanksgiving Parade in 1927, the spectacle has evolved over the decades into today's massive, televised event, featuring Broadway acts, movie stars, and gigantic, colorful balloons.
Beginning with Felix the Cat in 1927, those parade balloons have reflected the changing tastes and trends of the national zeitgeist. While characters such as Spider-Man and SpongeBob SquarePants are well known to parade-goers today, the balloons that came before were just as instantly recognizable to the throngs that lined the street in the early 20th century.
Some of those characters, such as Superman, have stood the test of time, while others, like the genie from 1924 silent film The Thief of Bagdad, have faded from memory. What they all share are fascinating back stories.
Felix the Cat, conceived by New Jersey cartoonist Otto Messmer, first appeared in an early 1900s short called Feline Follies, and is considered the first cartoon film star. The cat would go on to star in more than 150 cartoons and appear in more than 250 newspapers across the globe as a syndicated comic. It's no wonder that Felix was the first character balloon featured in the annual parade (before 1927, floats were the main attraction). | (Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)
Captain Nemo, pictured here in 1929, appeared in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which was first published in French, in 1869. Captain Nemo is considered one of fiction's more famous antiheroes, a brilliant but possibly mad creator and captain of the Nautilus, a submarine that journeys on a variety of underwater expeditions. | (AP Photo)
Superman rises over the crowds in Times Square in 1940. The classic superhero was born from the imagination of two teenagers in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1930s. Jerry Siegel, still in high school and unable to sleep one night, thought about what it would be like to fly, then hopped out of bed and wrote down his ideas. The next day, Siegel went to his friend Joe Shuster's house and asked the budding artist to sketch his character. A few years later, the friends found a publisher for their comic book, and in 1938, Superman made his debut. "In that first issue, Superman saved the life of an innocent woman on death row, stopped a wife beater, punished some bullying thugs and brought corrupt politicians to justice," Laura Siegel Larson, Jerry Siegel's daughter, said. "My father wanted to do all those things for society, but he was just a kid from Cleveland. What he could not do, he had Superman do." | (AP Photo/File)
The genie from the 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad stretches along the parade route in 1940. The silent film is considered actor Douglas Fairbanks' masterpiece, but it wasn't easy. It cost a whopping $1.1 million (a fortune back then), and took 65 weeks to make. Riffing off the popularity of The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (better known as Arabian Nights), the film was not a huge commercial success but received rave reviews from critics. "It is an entrancing picture, wholesome and beautiful…a feat of motion picture art which has never been equaled and one which itself will enthrall persons time and again," The New York Times gushed. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)
A giant spaceman floats through the air in 1952. The first artificial satellite to be launched into space — the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 — was still five years away from its historic journey. But the mysteries of the great beyond had already infiltrated popular TV shows (Tom Cadett Space Cadet and Space Patrol), movies (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and books (Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles) by the early 1950s. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Howdy Doody first appeared on an NBC New York radio show in 1947. Children loved the ranch hand who greeted listeners with, "Oh, ho, ho, howdy doody!" so NBC turned the character into a marionette living in Doodyville and brought him over to television. While the original Howdy Doody marionette was pulled from the show by its designer, Frank Paris, a new Howdy premiered in 1948 and continued to entertain audiences through 1960. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Mighty Mouse waves to the crowd as he floats through Times Square in 1952. Storyteller I. Klein originally created a housefly named "Superfly," but Paul Terry of TerryToons Cartoons changed the animal from an insect to a mouse and called him Super Mouse, which made its debut in a 1942 animated short called The Mouse of Tomorrow. When the studio realized there was already a "Super Mouse" being used in Marvel comic books, they changed their own hero's name to Mighty Mouse. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Popeye the Sailor Man looms over a marching band in 1961. Popeye first appeared as a supporting character in Elzie Segar's 1929 comic strip "Thimble Theatre," which focused on Olive Oyl and her family. After another supporting appearance, this time on the silver screen in a Betty Boop film, Popeye made the jump to leading character of the cartoon short I Yam What I Yam in 1933. Popeye's animated adventures continued, and in 1960, he got his own syndicated cartoon TV series. | (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
Smokey Bear was actually inspired by a real cub that got caught in the path of a forest fire that broke out across the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico in 1950. The cub managed to climb into a tree to escape the flames, but his paws and legs were badly burned. Soldiers out to fight the fire helped get the cub down, and after receiving veterinary care, Smokey Bear's story began to spread. He eventually traveled to Washington, D.C., where he found a permanent home at the National Zoo and became the living symbol of the fire safety character. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)