For three decades, until its balloons deteriorated, Baltimore had its own Thanksgiving Day parade.
From 1936 to 1966, the Toytown Parade would usually begin at Museum and Wyman Park drives and then head south on Maryland Avenue or Charles Street. The parade, sponsored by department store Hochschild, Kohn & Co., was the city’s answer to New York City’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which first occurred in 1924, featuring floats, balloons, bands and Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.
The parade was canceled in 1967 due to “deteriorated balloons,” according to a Nov. 23, 1967 story in The Baltimore Sun.
Ben Lewis Posen, an advertising manager at Hochschild Kohn, helped stage the first parade in 1936. He had been interested in hosting a parade and found out that the “big, inflated attractions” needed to do so were very expensive.
“Some of the balloons, which were as much as 16 feet high and 160 feet long, would cost up to $15,000 or even more at today’s prices,” Posen wrote in a 1964 Sun article.
With 20 to 30 of them needed, “the parade idea began to run into a lot of money,” he said.
Adjusted for inflation, $15,000 in 1964 would be more than $125,000 in 2020 money, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index inflation calculator.
But in early 1936, a man from Pittsburgh, Jean Gros, came to Posen with an idea: renting the “inflated parade figures,” as well as costumes, floats and other items. And so the parade was able to begin, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day for the first time.
The first run was close to a catastrophic failure.
The parade was using many of the same floats as another parade the day before in Binghamton, New York. They were supposed to be driven by van to Baltimore by 5 p.m. that Wednesday, but a snowstorm disoriented the drivers.
“The truck drivers got lost in the snow and, in several hours of driving, made a complete circle that took them back to Binghamton instead of Baltimore,” Posen said.
About 3½ hours before the parade was supposed to start, at 6 a.m., the drivers still hadn’t shown up.
Posen bet that they would show eventually, so he called on a maintenance official from the department store to find all the vacuum cleaners he could and bring them to the beginning of the parade.
The official “must have taken display models right off the floor,” since he brought 15 or 20, Posen said.
At 7 a.m., the trucks finally appeared.
“The men unloaded the parade figures and began inflating them with their air compressors and our vacuum cleaners,” Posen said. “We put a vacuum cleaner or two on each figure to be inflated, and pretty soon our parade began to look like a parade.”
It started right at 9:30, as planned.
The first edition of the Toytown parade was the only one with significant problems, Posen said.
In 1938, James F. Burnside took over directing the parade and he was still in charge of it as of 1964, Posen added.
“We were somewhat concerned at first with the immensity of some of the inflated figures, and their fierce appearance,” Posen said. “We were afraid some small children might be frightened, but we found out right away that the bigger and more ferocious the beasts looked, the more the children loved them.”
Every parade had its own theme, while still emphasizing the “Toytown atmosphere,” Posen wrote.
One year, it was fairy tale-themed. Another, it was “Alice in Wonderland” and Mother Goose-themed.
In 1942, in the midst of World War II, it had a “patriotic theme” and helped sell war bonds.
Santa Claus, who wasn’t “to be seen again” until 1946, rode in a Jeep that year.
“Far and away the most popular part of any parade is the float carrying Santa Claus,” Posen said. “Santa’s helpers have moved along the parade route every year, collecting tens of thousands of letters from children to Santa Claus.”
Santa answered all the letters with a name and return address, he said. The parade would go forward rain or shine, he said. And with good weather, it could pass 250,000 people attending as it hit “a few years” before 1964.
But a few years later, the Toytown parade was no more, seeing its last march in 1966.
Baltimore wasn’t without a parade for too long, though.
In 1973, what later became known as the Mayor’s Christmas Parade happened for the first time two days after Thanksgiving in Hampden.
The next year, it was moved to Dec. 15, closer to Christmas.
The parade has run since, but was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, with hopes of returning in 2021.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.