Tony Sarg: Macy’s Balloons Began with a Book Illustrator

Nantucket Historical Society Collection

Photograph of Tony Sarg in 1929 with some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons he designed.

Anthony Frederick Sarg (1880-1942) was, at heart, a big kid who created puppets and other toys, illustrated fantastical picture books, and pulled off practical jokes. In his heyday, Tony Sarg, as he was better known, was a household name. Today, although he is less known than the puppeteers he influenced—including Bil Baird and Jim Henson—he’s still widely recognized as the father of modern American puppetry. 

Enormously creative, Sarg advanced from making marionettes to inventing the gigantic, iconic balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The first, Felix the Cat, debuted in 1927. He also pioneered Macy’s celebrated mechanized Christmas window displays. As an illustrator, he was an early stop-motion animator and an artistic entrepreneur who branded everything from puppet show stages to jigsaw puzzles.

Sarg was further well known for his books—more than twenty titles were published with his vivacious, playful illustrations.

Nantucket Historical Society Collection

A pencil, watercolor, and gouache sketch by Tony Sarg for a clown balloon.

Tony Sarg: Genius at Play, on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through November 5, is the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the artist’s life and works. Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, and Lenore Miller, curator emerita of the George Washington University Museum, co-curated the exhibition and devoted an entire segment to Sarg’s books. 

“His motto was to find the child within,” Miller said. “There’s a great quote in the exhibition about how work really has to be fun. Another catchphrase was to appeal to an audience aged six to sixty.”

Born in Guatemala in 1880, Sarg was raised in Germany. His artistic career began early, but was interrupted.

“Sarg was an illustrator as a very young man, but as a teenager, he was conscripted to the army. He was a lieutenant at seventeen,” Plunkett said. 

Sarg later moved to London in 1905 and lived there for ten years, working for the London Sketch Club and advertising agencies. When he subsequently moved to New York, he continued illustrating, primarily for prestigious magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan. 

He illustrated books for prominent writers of the time, such as The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me, a World War I narrative by William Allen White, originally published in 1918. He also illustrated children’s books—many of which he authored—as well as adult humor books. 

Along with Sarg’s marionettes, commercial products, stage sets, archival photographs, and ephemera, the exhibition showcases his original illustrations for these books.

“He was working in ink,” Plunkett said. “The children’s books were ink with watercolor. The books are very lively with a very fluid integration of images and words.”

Sarg additionally created jigsaw puzzles based on his book illustrations and was an early inventor of paper mechanisms popularized in pop-up books.

“In his books for children, he was very interested in movement and interactivity,” Plunkett said. “His books have moveable elements—dials that raise and lower somebody’s arm.”

Collection of the Nantucket Historical Association

Ink, pencil, and watercolor study for Tony Sarg’s Book for Children from Six to Sixty (New York: Greenberg Inc., 1924) with illustrations inspired by his daughter Mary and their family dog Freckles. 

Sarg branded many of his books with his name, publishing Tony Sarg’s Book for Children from Six to Sixty, Tony Sarg’s Alphabet Book, Tony Sarg’s Book of Animals, Tony Sarg’s Book of Tricks, Tony Sarg’s Surprise Book, Tony Sarg’s Wonder Zoo, and also Tony Sarg’s Savings Book, which encouraged kids to save money. 

The curators developed the exhibition over almost seven years, originally inspired by a whimsical purchase made by Miller.

“Tony Sarg was completely unknown to me until I went to the farmer’s market and purchased several handkerchiefs with amusing illustrations in a circus style. They had the signature ‘Tony Sarg,’ and that sparked my curiosity,” Miller said. “I asked, ‘Who is this person?’”

Plunkett said, “I knew Sarg’s work because I focus on illustration, and Sarg and Norman Rockwell were contemporaries. Rockwell was fourteen years younger, but they did navigate the same artistic circles and worked for the same publications.”

Despite his widespread influence on American popular culture, the curators reported an overall lack of information about Tony Sarg. 

“There isn’t that much for somebody with such a major impact on pop culture through his work for Macy’s and his shops and his marionettes,” said Plunkett. “We’re very excited about bringing him back to the forefront.”