History of Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Everyone loves a parade and nothing proves that as much as the continued popularity of the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade. Born of an advertising gimmick nearly a century ago, the annual holiday parade may not be as well known as its New York City counterpart, but it remains a national icon with justifiable bragging rights as the oldest Thanksgiving Day Parade in the nation. This year’s festivities will mark the 93rd anniversary of that first 1920 parade, which proudly began at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Museum of Art before wending its way through the city to its terminus in front of Gimbel’s Department store at the corner of Eighth and Market Streets.

Early Days

That first parade was the brainchild of Ellis Gimbel. The 10th of 14 children born of Gimbel Department store founder, Adam Gimbal, Ellis quickly moved up through the company’s hierarchy before assuming the helm in 1936. Sixteen years before, Ellis conceived of the parade as a marketing ploy designed to remind his fellow Philadelphians that the holiday season was upon them, and with the parade terminating right in front of his store further served to remind them that his store stocked everything that they would need to get through the holiday season.

Whereas that first procession was comprised of a mere fifty Gimbels employees, it quickly grew into an elaborate affair that drew thousands to the streets of the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affections in subsequent years. Elaborate floats, huge balloons, and a bevy of marching bands came to fire up the holiday each season, and typically closed with a float containing jolly old Saint Nick himself. Santa came in from Gimbels Department store and would scale a fire truck ladder to the eighth floor of the building which, of course, housed Gimbels’ “Toyland.”

Over the course of the next six decades, until 1986, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving parade grew in popularity before becoming a staple on American televisions across the nation. In 1985, Gimbels had relinquished their ownership interest to Allied Stores Corporation, and in so doing put the future of the parade at risk.

Corporate Take Over

Upon their corporate take over of Gimbels Department store, the new owners at Allied Stores Corporation were not inclined to keep up the holiday tradition that had been begun so long before by Ellis Gimbel. With the very future of the holiday parade in jeopardy, a local television station, ABC affiliated WPVI took on the costs of staging the annual gala. Over the years they have formed numerous partnerships with other companies and organizations to ensure the ongoing survival of the event. One of the major changes they made to the long running tradition was to reverse the parade route so that it now ended at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Museum of Art, rather than with Santa Claus scuttling into the window of Gimbels eighth story window.

That first 1986 parade saw 76er basketball star Julius Erving serving as the procession’s Grand Marshal, while spectators delighted at the appearance of such cultural icons as the Flintstones, Care Bears, and those most famous of animated rodents, Mickey and Minnie Mouse made an appearance.

The Parade’s Appeal

The parade’s propensity for including large numbers of marching bands has only accelerated over the years. Indeed, parade organizers pride themselves on making the parade “the most band friendly parade in the country,” and they have 19 spots reserved for high school, college, and specialty bands each year. With bands numbering a hundred members and more each, spectators will have no shortage of musical entertainment for this year’s parade. The parade is one of the delightful highlights of  Philadelphia’s holiday traditions.