Forty-four million people watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade every year, three million of which crowd the streets of New York City, their eyes cast to the sky as giant super heroes and cartoon characters float by. Macy’s Day is the Super Bowl of parades, and it all began here on Nantucket. As curious as this might sound, it’s absolutely true: Not only was a Nantucketer responsible for making the Macy’s Day Parade an iconic Thanksgiving tradition, but the event’s very namesake, R.H. Macy & Company, traces its roots back to the island.
In 1921, Tony Sarg, a celebrated illustrator and puppeteer, bought a home on Nantucket and eventually opened a toy store in town. From his off-island studios nestled in Times Square, Sarg’s artwork appeared on the covers of magazines, on the pages of children’s books, and eventually in Macy’s department store window displays. Beginning in 1924, Macy’s held an annual Christmas parade to celebrate the holiday shopping season in New York City, and appointed Tony Sarg as its chief designer.
After three years of the Christmas Parade, in November 1927, the president of Macy’s, Jesse Strauss, announced to America that the parade was going to take it up a notch, way up. The press and the people of New York City swelled with anticipation, all waiting to see what Tony Sarg had in mind. At one o’clock, Thanksgiving Day 1927, Sarg unveiled his lofty creations—first a twenty-one-foot balloon man that peeked into second story windows and then a jaw-dropping sixty-foot-long balloon dragon. The balloons were a huge hit, and have been the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Day Parade ever since.
In the summer of 1937, one of Sarg’s balloons appeared on the shores of Nantucket, but not before the artist called up the press claiming to have seen a sea serpent out at Coatue. The town was abuzz as reports came in of fishermen finding giant footprints in the sand and of sightings of the beast swimming across the Sound. Then on hot summer afternoon, the sea serpent revealed its giant rubber head on Washington Street and Sarg’s elaborate hoax was up.
Somewhere in the family album of renowned Nantucket scrimshander, Nancy Chase, is a black and white photograph of two young girls sitting in the shadow of Sarg’s balloon. The older girl is Nancy, and the younger is her sister, Phyllis. “My God that was a hundred years ago — well, almost a hundred,” laughs Chase, now eighty-one. “I must have been seven or eight, and my sister is a year younger…we went down there to Washington Street and we were amazed by the thing.” Throngs of Nantucketers joined the two girls, rushing down to catch a glimpse of Sarg’s balloon beast like times of old when giant sperm whales were unloaded on the docks.
Nantucket’s connection to the parade doesn’t begin and end with Tony Sarg’s balloons, however. Rowland Hussey Macy was a Nantucket whaler who left the island in the mid-1800s to find fortune on the main land. Beyond whaling, Macy seemed to have retail in his blood as his father ran a storefront adjacent to where Murray’s Toggery Shop stands today on Main Street. After several financial failures in Wisconsin, California, and Massachusetts, Macy made his way to New York City and opened R.H. Macy & Co. Over a century and a half later, Macy’s is one of the largest department store retailers in the United States. And where did the Macy’s trademark red star come from? Off R.H. Macy’s arm: it’s a tattoo he got while he was off awhaling.
Today, the parade remains tethered to the island. In fact, there are at least two Nantucket residents who spend the day before Thanksgiving inflating the balloons before they embark on their march through Manhattan. Longtime summer resident, Linda Lynch has been volunteering for twenty-seven years now, inflating balloons ranging from Spiderman to Sponge Bob with helium. The inflation process for an especially large balloon can take up to two hours, requiring more helium than a hot air balloon and sometimes a team of fifty to tame. When she’s not on the island, Lynch is a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. “Hoboken, until last year, was the home of the Macy’s Parade studio,” she says. “So years ago they decided that maybe we would have students that weren’t going back home for Thanksgiving help inflate the balloons.”
One hundred twenty-five students, faculty and staff help with the inflation, and Lynch is the co-organizer of that group. One honorary member of the group is year-round islander, PJ Joyner. Originally from New York City, Joyner grew up attending the parade as a little girl, and when she found out about Lynch’s role in it, she pleaded to be involved. “We generally don’t take outsiders other than people from our school,” says Lynch, “but we made an exception with PJ and she’s become a really great member of the team.” This Thanksgiving, Joyner celebrates her tenth year volunteering at the parade.
And so it is that from R.H. Macy to Tony Sarg to Linda Lynch and PJ Joyner, the Nantucket Macy’s Day Parade tradition is brought to new heights by generations of Nantucketers. It’s an uplifting experience not only for them, but also for the millions who watch this Thanksgiving.