The Tale of the Ticker Tape,
or How Adversity and Spontaneity
Hatched a New York Tradition
What was Planned as a Grand Affair became a Comedy of Errors
While the festivities in New York Harbor didn’t go as scripted that afternoon, the spontaneous gesture it generated from the brokerage houses lining Broadway famously lives on more than a century later.
On October 28, 1886, Liberty Enlightening the World was to be unveiled to New York City and the world as it stood atop its tall base on Bedloe’s Island. But the morning mist had turned to afternoon fog, blurring the view of the statue from revelers on the Manhattan shore and the long parade of three hundred ships on the Hudson River.
What was planned as a grand affair-with President Grover Cleveland as the main speaker-became a comedy of errors. The fog prevented efficient communication between the dignitaries on the island and the ships awaiting orders to fire their salutes and blast their horns at the given signal.
Even the dramatic unveiling moment itself went awry. Frederic Bartholdi, perched high up on his sculpture, waited for the signal to pull the rope that would release the huge canvas that had covered Lady Liberty’s face for the past week. It came too early, prematurely touching off a noise-filled celebration that abruptly ended Mayor William Grace’s speech.
Undeterred, the celebration on Manhattan continued as the huge crowd-estimated at three hundred thousand-paraded up Broadway, passing brokerage houses along the way.
Brokers had traditionally received stock updates by “runners”-men who delivered news by word of mouth. But after the Civil War, these runners had been replaced by telegraph lines, which instantly transmitted updates to stock tickers. These machines printed out the names of the companies-abbreviated to a few initials-followed by trading prices and volume information. “Ticker” referred to the sound the machines made as they transferred the electronic information onto lengthy strips of inch-wide paper.
Why the first broker chose to toss some long ribbons of ticker tape out his window above the thousands walking below is anyone’s guess, but in that moment-as other brokers followed his lead and streams of paper floated down over the crowds-New York’s unique ticker-tape parade was born.
Had that spontaneous parade stayed along the river or marched up another avenue, or had stockbrokers been conducting their business in a different neighborhood, New Yorkers today would likely be tossing flowers or waving handkerchiefs at their heroes.
Since 1886, New York’s ticker-tape parades have overwhelmingly paid tribute to world leaders or military veterans, or have celebrated important achievements in exploration, aviation, or science. One hundred and sixty parades have recognized men exclusively, while twelve have specifically honored women.
While that first one acclaimed Lady Liberty, it would be forty years before a real-life flesh-and-blood woman was singled out for her achievements. In 1926, New York City’s own Gertrude Ederle was celebrated as the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Only nine sports teams were honored in the nearly two hundred parades held between 1886 and 1991. It speaks volumes about whom our heroes are today that ten of the last eleven parades have paid tribute to the achievements of athletes.
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