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.