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History of Detroit's Thanksgiving Day Parade

J.L. Hudson's Department Store Brings Santa to Detroit


Updated June 30, 2014

The Eaton Department Store in Toronto probably started it all with its Santa Claus Parade back in 1905. Although the parade didn't fall on either the United States’ or Canada’s Thanksgiving Day, which falls on the second Monday in October, it heralded the coming of Santa and, therefore, served as inspiration to department stores in the United States looking for a similar holiday marketing gimmick.

Gimbel’s was actually the first department store in the United States to try its hand at parade sponsorship on Thanksgiving Day in Philadelphia; but it was. J.L. Hudson’s in Detroit and Macy’s in New York that launched parades in 1924 that eventually became national, Thanksgiving traditions.

Papier Mache Heads

While the Toronto parade was one of the inspirations for Charles F. Wendel, the display manager at J.L. Hudson Company, when he launched Detroit’s first parade, he was also inspired by a trip to Italy, where papier mache heads figured prominently in carnivals in Venice and Viareggio. In fact, Detroit’s first parade was mainly filled with big heads, along with 10 floats and several marching bands.

Evolving Sponsorship

Because of the high cost of the parade, Hudson’s gave up primary sponsorship of the event in 1979, when it turned it over to the Detroit Renaissance. In 1983, it was turned over to The Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation and, finally, in 1990 the foundation's marketing and operating division, The Parade Company, was created. The foundation is a nonprofit organization made up of 100s of local businesses and civic leaders.

Distinguished Clown Corps

In 1985, shortly after the parade experienced a major sponsorship change, the Distinguished Clown Corps made its first appearance in the parade. The corps allow local businessman to serve as clowns for a $1,000 donation. Notable clowns have included A. Alfred Taubman, Edsel Ford and Dave Bing.

Notable Goofs

The 30-foot-long, Chilly Willy balloon pulled free of its tethers as it was being filled for Detroit's Thanksgiving Day parade in 1990. It was still floating at about 5,000 feet above Detroit during the parade and eventually ended up getting fished out of Lake St. Clair, a point over 25 miles away.


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