Bailing on Straws

Costons soda_fountain 1909

My mother liked to take us to an old-fashioned soda fountain for special occasions when we were young. I liked the coin-operated vintage music machines that played songs from piano rolls or hole-punched metal disks. I liked the marble table tops and the wrought-iron chairs. I liked the egg salad sandwiches cut into triangle quarters, and of course the milk shakes were excellent. The only thing I didn’t like about this trip to a time my great-grandmother might have found familiar was the paper straw.

The paper straw was, I felt, a worthless invention, as it became soggy after a few minutes in my chocolate malted. The waitress would bring a new one, of course, but I’d run through a few of the paper straws before my shake was done. Authenticity triumphed over convenience here, so if you wanted to go on this outing with Mom, you just learned to suck it up. At home, we had a set of pastel-colored, straight, aluminum straws from when my mom was a girl. They had a little paddle on the bottom. My mother said that was to scoop up your milk shake. I thought they were pretty and retro, so I liked to use them, but they were a pain to keep clean, so they didn’t come out very often.

The older I got, the more abundant the plastic straw seemed, although it is quite likely that I just did not see them very often as a kid because we did not eat out that much. Today, if you order a drink out, the plastic straw is often already plunked in your beverage when it arrives. So many of us use these straws that, in the United States alone, we go through half a billion plastic straws each day (yes, billion with a B). That’s shocking given there are only 325 million of us in the country!

Sumerian Straw

The first straw was found in the tomb of a Sumerian dating from circa 3000 BCE. Art in the tomb shows two Sumerians drinking beer with straws from a large jar, presumably to avoid the sediment at the bottom of the container, and a gold, inlaid straw was found in that same location. Of course that is just the first evidence of straw use. As long as there were hollow reeds and grasses, ancient people were likely using them as straws. In fact, this natural use of grasses gave us the modern straw, as the inventor of my childhood frustration, the paper straw, didn’t like the grassy taste his rye straw gave to his afternoon adult beverage as it disintegrated into the alcohol. To fix this travesty, Marvin Chester Stone wound paper around a pencil, coated it with paraffin, and promptly patented that sucker in 1888.

paper straws

There were improvements along the way to the modern plastic straw: Joseph B. Friedman made the straw bend. He received a patent for that in 1937, creating the accordion shape by crimping a paper straw on a screw, and by 1939 he was selling a lot of them to hospitals because they made it easier for reclining patients to drink. Plastic straws came in, competing with paper straws at first, because the plastic ones were too buoyant for fizzy drinks; plastic finally won the straw wars because the plastic straw could be jabbed through a plastic lid, whereas a paper straw could not. Indeed, by the time I was a kid, the plastic straw was ubiquitous, and the paper ones, like my nemesis found at ye olde soda shoppe, were old-timey.

And with the rise of fast food and more people eating out, we arrive at 2018 and 1.5 straws per person per day. Of course, if you are in the straw business, this is great news. If you’re a sea creature, not so much. The plastic in straws doesn’t biodegrade—it just breaks down into ever smaller pieces—so the problem of plastic straws in the environment doesn’t go away. Regrettably, straws are also hard to recycle. Most are made of #5 plastic, which certain recyclers will take, but just as they float in fizzy drinks, they are also too light to make it reliably through the recycling machines. They bounce off the belts and fall through the screens. They end up in landfills or, worse, blowing around in the environment, where they often end up in the ocean. In fact, plastic straws are now one of the top-ten items found in beach cleanups, and zoos often don’t allow them because they too easily end up in the animal enclosures.  Animals may think the straws are food and ingest them or otherwise become entangled with them. One viral video this spring graphically showed a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, where it was obstructing its airway and causing breathing issues.

plastic straws

Luckily, people are becoming increasingly aware of the plastic straw problem. The United Kingdom announced they would ban all single-use plastics (straws, drink stirrers, etc.), and the law is set to go into effect next year. Seattle’s law banning straws begins July 1. Reimagined paper straws (that thankfully don’t collapse as quickly as they did in days of yore), bamboo straws, compostable straws, even pasta straws are being tried in various markets. We bought sets of metal and silicon straws for home use, and the “hard to clean” aspect of my mother’s metal straws was solved because they came with flexible brushes, so you can give the insides a good swab.

Out in the world, we are learning to refuse the straw. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because it is so ingrained for the waitstaff to give a straw with your water or soda. The key is to try to remember to say you don’t need a straw when you order, otherwise your drink may come with the straw already in. Often the waitstaff is trained to leave straws on the table when they set down the drinks, and we’ve had this happen even after we said no to the straw. Then the trick is to get the wait person to pick the still-wrapped straw up and return it to the pocket of his or her apron, because if the straw is still on the table at the end of the meal, the bus person is likely to just clear it with the rest of the trash.

Actually, this is a conversation starter with the waitstaff. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many of them are aware of the problem and say they are actively working to get their managers to make a change (although they admit the constrawversy will continue as long as the plastic ones remain the most economical). Of course there are people who actually need plastic straws to drink because of a disability or medical issue, but the rest of us can cut straw use by refusing the straw or using a personal travel straw while out.

Still, you may say, this straw thing is only a small part of our plastic use. And that’s true, but once a straw goes into use, it has a life expectancy of less than an hour from unwrapping to trash, so it is an easy place to think about reducing our dependency on plastic. We aren’t going to solve our pollution issue by banning straws alone, but it is an excellent first step on our way to the last (plastic) straw.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow;
Photo 1: Costons Soda Fountain, 1909, Public Domain;
Photo 2: The Met, Public Domain;
Photo 3: Stone’s Julep Straws Ad, Public Domain;
Photo 4: Horia Varlan, Wiki Commons


Resources:

Video of turtle having straw removed from its nose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

Patent for the bendy straw: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/01/04/f2/13db9a8c162c5b/US2094268.pdf

The Met’s page on the Sumerian straw artwork (see upper right of photo): https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/324572

Additional Reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/the-amazing-history-and-the-strange-invention-of-the-bendy-straw/248923/

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/06/disposable-america/563204/

https://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/trends-news/article/history-of-the-straw

 

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On All Hallow’s Eve

 

The artist down the street
Gave delicately iced, arched-back
Black cat sugar cookies.
The people in the castle
Gave homemade popcorn balls
That stuck in your teeth.
The neighbors ’cross the way
Gave gooey caramel apples.
But we always hoped for
Store-bought candy.

And now, you can’t give
Hand-crafted goodies
Because parents are afraid
Of razors in apples,
Or drugs in cookies,
Or worst of all,
Of not knowing
All the people
In the neighborhood.

I guess irony is knowing you
Only wanted Snickers as a kid,
But as an adult, you are sad
That homemade sweets
Have gone the way of the dodo
At Trick-or-Treat.

Text: © 2017 Rebecca Bigelow
Clipart: WikiClipArt

Advice to Charlottesville Marchers

Extinguish your Tiki torches.
They may light the night,
But never your soul or mind.

Take off your hood.
It may offer you anonymity,
But it can’t hide who you are.

Stop worshipping monuments
To treasonous generals
On the wrong side of history.

Put down your vile flags.
They celebrate empty promises
Of a false superiority.

Don’t allow yourself to be frightened.
Different threads woven together
Make the fabric of our nation strong.

Cease your vacant railing
For a fairy-tale time when
America was great.

Remember whatever era
You think that was
Had problems of its own.

Lay down your burdens
Of animosity and ignorance.
Only then will you be free.

Because hate yokes you now,
As surely as chains once enslaved
Our brothers and sisters.

Written August 17, 2017, in response to the events
 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the previous weekend.
©2017 Rebecca Bigelow

On First Concerts

My first ever concert was when I was seven; I didn’t pick the artist. My older sister had a mad crush on David Cassidy—a crush of the his-poster-over-the-bed, his-face-on-all-her-Tiger-Beat-magazines, his-music-on-her-45s variety. So for her birthday, my parents indulged her and bought tickets to see him at the Springfield Civic Center.

I don’t remember much about the concert—mostly screaming girls. My sister enjoyed every minute of it. The rest of us were clearly not in the target demographic. My mother, for years after, would wonder why they had paid good money for David Cassidy to shake his white-fringed-jumpsuit-wearing heinie at the audience for 90 minutes. I naively (but breathlessly) waited for the rest of the Partridge Family to come out. I was doomed to disappointment. Did the abstract-painted-modern-art school bus break down? Did Chris and Tracy have school the next day? It was years before the Milli-Vanilli scandal, so someone eventually had to explain to me that just because their faces were on the album cover did not mean they were either (a) a real family or (b) actually sang on the records. My dreams of hitting the road for a world tour with my family before third grade were crushed.

Flash forward a decade and a half, and I finally bought my first concert tickets on my own: Huey Lewis and the News. I didn’t have a crush on him—if he had posters and magazine covers, I never knew it—but I liked his everyman anthems, his explorations of acapella, his catchy horn section, and even his harmonica solos. My husband and I were young, newly married, and in grad school, but we squeezed the household budget and bought the tickets.

Held at Broome County Arena, it is still the concert to which we compare all others. I don’t remember screaming girls, but I do remember people dancing in the aisles, singing along, and begging for more than one encore. Huey had great stage presence, and everyone in the hall was happily along for the ride. We saw lots of bigger names later, but it turns out that the Beach Boys were fun, but so old they had to bring cheerleader-types to keep the crowd entertained; Paul McCartney looked tiny from our nosebleed seats at the Vet in Philadelphia; Chicago were lifeless and out of tune on stage; and Paul Simon was too loud (my ears literally rang for three days afterward, despite holding my hands over my ears for the entire concert).

We saw a lot of the greats that made up the soundtrack of the 80s and 90s, but I think one of the reasons I still have so much affection for Huey Lewis and the News is that I chose the concert myself, and I went with someone who also wanted to be there. Going was a rite of passage and I still look back on it fondly.

My sister, I have to think, finally realized she had terrible taste in first crushes, not to mention music; her later concerts were much more mainstream. Although, I admit to rolling my eyes when she confessed that she had gone to see Barry Williams—Greg Brady!—in Branson a couple of years ago. Maybe her taste hasn’t improved that much.

After we had kids, we took them to some of the concerts they wanted to see, starting with a parade of Disney Channel stars: Cheetah Girls, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers. We learned to bring earplugs and, as the kids got older, we introduced them to more mainstream stuff—yes, even Huey. When they were teens, they had their own rites of passage. I happily dropped them at the Warped Tour—an all day concert featuring screamo and emo and latter-day punk. It was so not my thing, but they loved it.

And that is what the concert-going experience is supposed to be: a shared moment, a rite of passage, a fondly remembered first—whether it’s your technical first with David Cassidy’s jumpsuit or a real first with Huey Lewis’ cry for a Couple Days Off. But this week, thousands of kids, some on their own and some with their parents, attended a concert in Manchester, England. For a lot of them, it was probably their first concert. For twenty-two it was also their last concert. One man, and a handful of his associates, made sure that those in attendance would always remember it—but not because the singer had no stage presence, or was too loud, or because they had sung along and danced in the aisles for two hours. And that makes my heart hurt for those who were there.

I’m angry that something that should be remembered with joy or humor or fondness (or even irony years later if your taste in music changes) or any of a thousand other positive emotions can now only be remembered as a tragedy. I’m angry that those kids were not allowed to hold that elation for even a moment. Music should bring us together—a time to laugh, a time to dance. But this week it is a time to mourn: the senseless loss of life, the loss of childhood innocence, and the muting of the music.

But this last is temporary because music expresses all our emotions, from deepest sorrow to highest delight, so we’ll return to see the horn sections, to listen to the harmonies, and to wonder if the rest of the Partridge Family will show up. Because the music, and our need to share it, is greater than those who would silence it. The beat will go on.

 

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow

Quarter Rest Image: free clipart

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

guard-tower-hmwf-yoshio-okumoto-coll-500x313

A guard tower at Heart Mountain—
the barbed wire and armed guards were to keep people in.

Seventy-five years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which established so-called Military Zones in the United States, a national policy based on fear and racism. This order laid the groundwork for the eventual removal and internment of tens of thousands of people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, people who were not convicted of any crime.

Sadly, this shameful stain on American history has actually been cited recently as a “precedence” for the potential registry and internment of people of the Muslim faith. Those who do not learn from history . . .

I’m using this anniversary and the rhetoric about suggested current bans as an opportunity to educate those who may be unfamiliar with this aspect of U.S. history. In 1992, I had recently earned my MA in history, and I was shocked at how hidden this chapter of our American past was. I don’t believe it rated a single paragraph in my high school history books, and when I chose the topic for my own capstone project as a grad student, much of the secondary source material was recent—as if historians themselves had only just discovered the topic.

After I wrote my thesis, Friends Journal, a Quaker monthly publication, announced they were dedicating their November 1992 issue to a retrospective of the internment experience. I penned the overview (which can be read in PDF form without leaving this website) that introduced the issue. My essay tells the story of internment in brief, from the issuance of 9066 to reparations. Other voices in that issue offered reflections from those who lived through the actual events on both sides of the camp fences and updates on apologies and healing.

Today, there are many more opportunities to learn about the camps and what happened seventy-five years ago than there were even in 1992. The Japanese American National Museum opening coincided with the fiftieth anniversary. Manzanar was also named a National Historic Site in 1992, although the interpretive museum would not open until 2004. The Rohwer museum opened its doors in 2013. And of course, George Takei, of Star Trek fame, interned as a child with his family at Rohwer, has been an advocate for bringing this story to the forefront, through his blog and his passion project, the musical Allegiance (Broadway run 2015–16).

If you want to learn more about this period, I invite you to explore the links in the additional reading section. I think people who truly open their hearts to these events—the tragedy of internment, the suffering of Japanese American families, and the understanding that the internment did absolutely nothing for American security during the war—will see that this is not a mistake we, as Americans, want to repeat.

Text : (C) 2017 Rebecca Bigelow;  Photo: National Archives


Additional Reading

Rebecca Bigelow, “Certain Inalienable Rights,” Friends Journal, November 1992. Note this is a link on Curiosity Seldom Pays. All other links are to external sites.

Friends Journal archives are available to paid subscribers if you want to read the entire issue on the subject of internment.

George Takei’s Allegiance, the musical about internment, is playing in select theaters nationwide on Sunday (tomorrow), February 19, 2017, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of 9066. This is the filmed version of the Broadway production starring George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung. Check the Fathom Events site to see if it is playing near you. Also note that fans are asking for the film version to be made available for in-home viewing, but there are no official announcements on this yet.

A selection of museum sites:

Heart Mountain (Wyoming)

The Japanese American National Museum

Manzanar National Historic Site (California)

Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center (Arkansas)

Science Is Golden

I’m what you might call science adjacent. I’m not a scientist, but I keep crossing paths with them. As an editor, I spend a lot of time correcting their grammar, and on a day-to-day basis, I share my house with two of them: my husband and our daughter.

I may have ended up as an English and history major, but I’ve always liked science. It’s useful for everyday life. Need to bake a cake? Chemistry will help you there. Planting a garden? Show gratitude to botany for your knowledge of Hardiness Zones. Need to know how scary a theme park ride is? Ask about the gravitational force on Space Mountain (calculated by a local news team1 as more than 3.5), and you can nope right out of that ride thanks to physics.

Science appeals to my logical side. For a theory to be accepted, it has to be replicable, so scientists have to be able to lay out all the steps for how they reached their conclusion. “Because I said so,” may be the fallback position of frustrated parents everywhere, but it would not fly in a peer-reviewed science journal. And when science gets things wrong—and it does, after all the earth is not flat, there are no canals on Mars, and the planet Vulcan only exists in the Star Trek universe2—other scientists eventually correct the mistake with new evidence.

Scientists don’t know everything, nor do they claim to, and they don’t always explain things to lay people in a way that they can understand. Sometimes their scientific bent even gets them into trouble. When we were dating, my husband told me he was 99 percent sure that he loved me, but he could never be 100 percent sure because he was a scientist.3 I married him anyway.

The upshot of all this is when the vast majority of scientists agree on something, it behooves us to listen. Scientists agree that climate change is real, and 97 percent of climate change scientists agree that humans are causing it. Now, granted, that is not as certain as my husband is that he loves me, but it’s pretty darn close.

So when scientists tell us that climate change is real (and coming soon to a city near you!), we should listen.  After all, if you were in the way of stampeding heffalumps, and someone yells, “Heffalumps!” to warn you, it would be unreasonable to stand around debating the origins, causes, and motivations of A.A. Milne characters run amok. No, the first thing any reasonable person would do is to try to stabilize the situation: get out of the way, seek shelter, or otherwise try to reduce the number of rogue creatures escaped from the Hundred Acre Wood.4

The same theory applies to climate change. Even without agreement on the causes, it is clear that there are things we can do to mitigate the effects of climate change and to try to stabilize the situation. I know I’m just an English and history major, but it seems to me that we can reduce our carbon footprint now and worry about the whys and wherefores later. After all, the planet doesn’t care where exactly the greenhouse gases are coming from, all that matters is to reduce them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the current administration to recognize the heffalump, er, elephant in the room. We can each take steps to limit our own carbon footprints. And with these few small individual steps, together we could make great strides. That said, governments can create the most change because they can affect general policy. If a government is unwilling to act, it makes sense to ask, “Who benefits if we don’t do those things?” The answer seems to be that certain corporations, politicians, and individuals have a vested self-interest in keeping carbon emissions unregulated.

But climate change is only one example of science under attack by the current administration. Being science adjacent, I’ve been alarmed this week when our new president has set in motion several anti-science policies, including issuing gag orders on science communities and canceling long-scheduled scientific conferences. Silence may be golden, but in this case it may be deadly. For science to thrive, research needs to see the light of day, so that other scientists can hold it to the high standards that come from reproducible results. Silencing the scientific community when we are on the cusp of a global crisis is crazy. Scientists are pushing back with alt-websites and planned marches on Washington, but we non-scientists need to speak up as well.

Even if you mixed up mitosis and meiosis throughout your high school biology class, you can still appreciate science—from the computer you are reading this on to the life-saving medications that extend both the quality and quantity of life to the special effects used in the latest blockbuster.  I promise you can learn about these things without having to memorize a single formula. If your current home is free from vector-borne diseases (translation: bugs that carry scary illnesses that they then transmit to humans) or you can get a variety of fruits and vegetables from the local supermarket year round, and you’d like to keep these things, consider reading up on climate change. By learning how to help—from recycling to speaking up for scientists in the wild—you can make a difference. Anyone who likes living on this planet has a stake in the outcome.  As the protest sign says: There Is No Planet B.

 

Text ©2017 by Rebecca Bigelow

________________

  1. See http://forums.wdwmagic.com/threads/orlandos-local-6-news-tests-g-forces.78170/ for discussion of G forces on Disney rides.
  2. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, a nineteenth-century mathematician who had successfully used math to predict the existence of Neptune, hypothesized the planet Vulcan could be found in Mercury’s orbit. Other scientists confirmed its existence at first, but later scientists realized that the anomalies in the orbit were not caused by a new planet but by the proximity to the sun. See an article on Real Clear Science for further discussion.
  3. This space available for the rebuttal and justification to be provided by said husband.
  4.  Apologies to A.A. Milne and his fans. No heffalumps were harmed in the writing of this piece.

________________

Additional Reading

For now, both the EPA and NASA have climate change websites available.

This is a list of the alt-twitter sites set up by scientists after the gag orders started rolling out. Many of these also have Facebook pages.

Rolling Stone magazine published an article in 2015 that discussed some of the effects of climate change that were already noticeable and happening at a much faster rate than predicted.

This site messes with my OCD a little bit. They advertise 50 ways individuals can help combat climate change, but then they only list 49. Overlook that and read the list anyway.

If you have kids, NASA has a page just for them.

Pilgrim’s Progress

When the Pilgrims and Native Americans sat down at their three-day celebration to give thanks for a bountiful harvest in 1621, they could not have imagined the trappings of a modern thanksgiving. Football? Green bean casserole? A 2.5 mile parade through a metropolis? All inconceivable!

More than 200 years later, the idea of our modern-style Thanksgiving gained traction when it was made a fixed national holiday in the United States by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Football on Thanksgiving came a few years later in 1869, but green bean casserole wasn’t invented until 1955. In between the two latter dates, R.H. Macy loaned his name to the best-known holiday parade in the United States when employees organized the first procession to Macy’s flagship store in New York City.

Will It Play in Peoria?

Although the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is now synonymous with Thanksgiving and is the way millions of Americans herald the holiday season, it isn’t the longest running holiday parade in the United States. That honor belongs to the Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, Illinois, which is now held the day after Thanksgiving and first welcomed Santa in 1889 (versions of the parade were held in both 1887 and 1888 to celebrate first the groundbreaking and later the completion of a new bridge, but St. Nick was not featured).

And despite the Macy Parade’s starring role in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, Macy’s wasn’t even the first parade held on Thanksgiving day. Ironically, that honor belonged to Macy’s real life—and reel life—rival: Gimbels, which first held their parade in 1920 in Philadelphia. Ellis Gimbel attracted children (and their parents) to his toy department with a parade that included 15 cars, 50 people, and the jolly elf himself. Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving parade remains the longest running one in the country, although since the demise of Gimbels stores in the 1980s, the parade has been renamed several times to recognize new sponsors.

 Broadway Debut

Four years after Gimbels’ first parade, in 1924, New York Macy’s employees held their first attempt, but the parade didn’t look much like the one held today. Although held on Thanksgiving, it was called a Christmas parade, and it was held without balloons. The route, which ended at the Herald Square Macy’s—as every Macy’s Parade since has done—began not at 77th Street as the parade does today, but at 145th Street and Covenant in Harlem, making the original route more than six miles long (or more than twice as long as today’s approximately 2.5 mile route).

elephants Macy's
Elephants from the Central Park Zoo.

Kris Kringle—already the main event—was brought in by “a retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats,” according to an article in The New York Times. The freaks were not explained, but the clowns were costumed employee volunteers, the animals were borrowed from the Central Park Zoo, and the floats had a Mother Goose theme to match the decorated Mother Goose Christmas–themed windows at the Macy’s store. Crowd estimates were put at 10,000 in Herald Square and another 250,000 along the route.

Santa Macy'sThe first Santa float.

Once Santa arrived, he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” The event was declared a rousing success, and Macy’s vowed to repeat the effort the following year. Indeed they have done so every year since, with the exception of the years 1942–1944, when the rubber and helium used in the parade was deemed more valuable to America’s war effort than to the parade. Interestingly, however, both Philadelphia’s and Peoria’s parades continued through the war years uninterrupted.

So Much Hot Air

Freaks notwithstanding, the Macy’s parade began to look less like a circus parade and more like the modern version in 1927—the first year balloons were used. The early balloons (four in the 1927 parade, including a dragon and Felix the Cat) were brought to the parade by puppeteer and theatrical designer Anthony Sarg. They were small, filled with air, controlled like a puppet by the volunteer handlers, and were more like floats (falloons, in modern terminology) than today’s high-soaring balloons.

Felix the catThe Felix the Cat balloon. Look, Ma! Only four handlers.

Still, the cat was out of the bag, and the live animals were permanently retired to the zoo. Helium was added to the balloons a year later and has been used every year the parade has run since, with two exceptions: In 1958 a helium shortage force parade organizers to transport the air-filled balloons on trucks and with cranes, and in 1971, high winds grounded the balloons.

P1180481Helium tankers deliver the gas to the public balloon inflation on Wednesday.

Balloons and floats for the modern parade are all created at Macy’s year-round parade studio in Hoboken, New Jersey. After several accidents in high winds, balloon size has been reduced, the number of handlers required for each balloon has been upped to a minimum of 50, and the balloons must be tethered to a vehicle, not just people. Additionally, traffic signals are turned out of the path of the parade or removed altogether, and the balloons are grounded if winds are sustained over 23 miles per hour. Floats have their own requirements on size, but the elves at the Hoboken studios make them so they fold up to 12 feet by 8 feet so they can fit through the Lincoln Tunnel on their way to and from the parade.

P1180696Notice the traffic lights have been moved out of the way.

 No Strings Attached

How much does it cost for Macy’s to create a balloon or float? Well, Macy’s is notoriously tightlipped on this matter. They have stated that they consider the parade to be a gift to the people of New York and the viewers at home, arguing that a gift giver does not announce the price of the gift to the recipient. Still, there are estimates that a new balloon will cost the sponsor as much as $190,000, with a repeat entry coming in around $90,000. A float is said to average $60,000.

In 2015, the balloons are a lot bigger and require many more handlers than in the earliest parades.

The performers are volunteers—mostly with Macy’s—but the groups that come to the parade, like a marching band, pay their own expenses. Last year, the University of Virginia marching band estimated their trip cost would be in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars. Groups that come from farther away have higher costs. Stephen F. Austin State University, which came from Texas, estimated their costs at more than $1,500 per person for their more than 300 band member because they had to charter planes. The University of Illinois’ Marching Illini did not announce a final price tag, as fundraising covered most of the expense for their trip, which included seven charter buses, meals and hotels, rehearsal space, and more, for approximately 400 people in the band organization for their four days in New York.

In exchange, after weeks of practice and hard work, and a two or three a.m. rehearsal in front of Macy’s for the live performers, each balloon, float, or band is rewarded with a few seconds of television coverage on Thanksgiving morning. In fact, each band was allotted one minute and fifteen seconds for their Herald Square performance this year. It may seem like a lot of work for little reward, but 175 bands auditioned for the chance to participate this year. Twelve were accepted. Macy’s has no shortage of bands, performers, and sponsors that want to be part of this annual holiday tradition.

I Always Think There Is a Band Kid

As traditions go, I confess, I think football should be a 15 minute game played between two halves of a marching band concert, and I think green bean casserole is an abomination to green beans. But I love a parade. And the approximately 3 million people who lined the streets of New York and the millions of viewers on TV who made last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade the highest rated non-sports show of the fall season agree with me.

Text ©2016 by Rebecca Bigelow;
Historic photos (1–3) Macy’s Public Domain;
Remaining color photos ©2015 by Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

Additional Reading:

Early Parade Information:

Information on Parade Costs:

Macy’s Parade Tidbits:

2015 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Marching Band Info