We Haven’t Forgotten: Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade Was The First

November 24, 2014 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , ,


Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Women carry flags down Broad Street in the 1930s | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In 1920, the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade was the first of its kind. Store employees in clown costumes bandied down Market Street vying for attention to promote the store’s “Toyland.” Today, along with 19 or more college and local high school bands–like North Allegheny and Donegal High School–the parade ignites Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the fanfare and color of pre-holiday season merriment.

Over the years, the parade has seen its share of stars. In 1938, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, AKA the King of Tap, danced down the route. In 1983, Guion Bluford, Overbrook High grad and NASA’s first African American astronaut, was grand marshal. Before there were cartoons, the best balloons were of characters from newspaper comic strips like “Toonerville Trolley.” As the parade became a television spectacle, local stations brought out the network stars like Isabel Sanford from “The Jeffersons,” Ann Jillian from “Making a Living,” and Sally Starr, host of Philly’s popular kids program “Popeye Theater.”

Until 1939, Thanksgiving was, as Abraham Lincoln decreed it, celebrated on the last Thursday of November. That year, Frederic A. Gimbel, the owner of the department store, led a lobbying group that aimed to move the holiday back a week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. “We all know,” Gimbel said, “that it is an American tradition to begin Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally worked to accommodate retailers and moved Thanksgiving Day that year. Confusion followed for a couple years, as not all states adopted the new date. In 1941, Congress voted to move the federal holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

Gimbels’ Philadelphia store at 9th and Market Streets–the cornerstone of a national brand that famously rivaled Macy’s–catered to both high and low end consumers, unusual among retailers of the era. The store was meant to feel opulent. “Select, don’t settle,” was one of its favorite advertising slogans.

Gimbels was the first department store to have escalators, but with a decline in business, the store moved to the Gallery (the space that most recently was occupied by Kmart) in 1977. The old store, which had been updated by architects Stonorov Kahn in 1945, was demolished in 1980.


More classic Gimbel’s Thanksgiving Day parade photos.

About the author

Kyrie Greenberg is a freelance writer and radio producer. She really doesn't mind if you mispronounce her name, but is always impressed when someone sings it to her.


  1. I don’t remember this parade but I do remember going to Gimbel’s with my mom and brother to shop. We took the trolley from 6th and Lehigh. Fun times. Thank you Kyrie (pretty name) for the article and pictures.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Fear & Floating At The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

Fear & Floating At The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

November 22, 2017  |  Last Light

Michael Bixler has this tribute to the zany hometown floats of the old Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade > more

New Book Claims PAFA As Catalyst For Modern Design

New Book Claims PAFA As Catalyst For Modern Design

November 21, 2017  |  Walk the Walk

In his new book, "First Modern," historian George E. Thomas asserts that Frank Furness opened the door to Modernism in 1876 with his design of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Joe Brin walks us through the architectural brilliance of the nation's first art school with this review > more

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

November 20, 2017  |  Vantage

It looks quiet, but the old 19th century firehouse at 730 South Broad Street, home of Brandywine Workshop, is buzzing with art and adaptation. Contributor Karen Chernick takes us behind the blue-green doors. > more

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

November 17, 2017  |  Vantage

Illustrator Ben Leech enlivens the dying art of architectural drawing with his exhibition, "Cret Illustrated: Revisiting a Philadelphia Icon in Sketches," at Woodlands Cemetery. Michael Bixler has the preview > more

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering “State Of Preservation” Report

November 16, 2017  |  News

Mayor Kenney's Historic Preservation Task Force convened today for their fourth official meeting. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

November 13, 2017  |  Uncategorized

  Now more than ever, independent journalism needs the support of readers like you. DONATE to the Hidden City Daily today and receive something nifty in return. > more