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Pasadena’s Rose Parade floats: From backyard flowers to an industry

The Rose Parade began as a competition that allowed Pasadena transplants to boast about the abundance of flowers available throughout the region when winter sets in.

Over the decades, the games played in the annual Tournament of Roses have changed, but the floats have only grown more intricate with time.

Valley Hunt Club members, led by Charles Frederick Holder in 1890, encouraged Rose Parade entrants to decorate horse-drawn carriages featuring hundreds of colorful blooms that would show their counterparts back East exactly why the West was superior.

Read more Rose Parade coverage here.

About 2,000 people turned out to enjoy the midwinter festival featuring flower-adorned carriages, foot-races, polo matches and tug-of-war matches on the town lot. The myriad of flowers and tournament games led to the recommendation that the festival be named “The Tournament of Roses,” according to historians.

Stadium stewards in the modern era describe the affair as the first commercial for the Southern Californian lifestyle, a savvy marketing decision that would last long after the horse-drawn carriages featured in the spectacle.

Th Penn State-USC game was a packed house — made more so by the gatecrashers. Above, the view looking northeast at the Rose Bowl stadium’s inaugural game in 1923. (Library of Congress, digital collection)

Calvin Hartwell sits astride a horse in a photo thought to be taken at a Rose Parade in the late 1890s when he served as Pasadena’s mayor. Hartwell was orginally from Ohio and reportedly came to Pasadena on his honeymoon and ended up staying two years. When he returned to live in California, he went on to political offices and held a seat on the Tournament of Roses executive board. (Pasadena Public Library, DigItal History Collection)

Construction of Rose Bowl Stadium started in late February 1922, and this is how it appeared on March 31. The venue hosted its first Rose Bowl Game the following New Year’s Day. (Pasadena Public Library — Pasadena Digital History collection)

Construction of Rose Bowl Stadium started in late February 1922, and this is how it appeared on March 31. The venue hosted its first Rose Bowl Game the following New Year’s Day. (Pasadena Public Library – Pasadena Digital History collection)

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A ride to modern times

The 31st Rose Parade, in 1920, marked the end of the horse-drawn era. Instead, motor-driven floats, powered by electric and gasoline engines – a marvel at the time, would begin traveling  the parade route.

Almost a century later, the parade floats seen today stand as marvels of state of the art technology. Some represent causes of activism while others take up corporate causes, which date as far back as 1910 when Pasadena-based Makano Restaurant, a Japanese-owned establishment, entered a float.

At the center of it all, though, are the flowers and other all-natural materials that wow crowds during a  5 ½ mile journey down Colorado Boulevard alongside spirited marching bands and high-stepping equestrian units.

At one point, flowers came from the backyards of local residents. Now, float construction is hardly as simple.

It takes approximately 7,000 hours to decorate one float from start to finish, and more than 500,000 flower stems will be sourced from countries around the world, including Thailand, Singapore and many in South America.

Few can describe drastic changes in float construction that have occurred over the decades like Kay Sappington, who’s headed Sierra Madre’s decorating team for nearly 20 years.

During a tour of the Sierra Madre Float Association’s facility, Sappington said all of the elaborate floats constructed for this year’s affair will feature high-tech computerized animation and natural materials from around the world.

Most, however, will be built by professional float building companies like Fiesta Parade Floats or represent major corporations rather than small towns.

Sierra Madre volunteers, in an attempt to keep up with the changing times, sit in a warehouse for three days a week to brainstorm how to keep pace.

“I think we’re constantly finding workarounds to problems because we don’t always have the resources the pros do,” Sappington said, explaining how parade officials historically value creativity and ingenuity while downplaying overt commercialism in floats.

Still, the event is big business, according to Sappington. So much so, the process to design a new float starts in January, just after the parade’s conclusion. Funds are raised throughout the year, and stress is prevalent as a result.

The year-long effort pays off every New Year’s morning, though, according to Sappington, when millions of viewers around the world enjoy the Rose Parade and the hours that her team of locals dedicated to make magic happen.

The Peoples Parade follows the 133rd Rose Parade in Pasadena on Saturday, January 1, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The UPS Store float rolls past First United Methodist Church in Pasadena during the 2022 Rose Parade. The 134th Rose Parade and 109th Rose Bowl game will be held on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in keeping with a “Never on a Sunday” tradition that began when officials were afraid of frightening horses tied outside local churches. (Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church of Pasadena)

The crowds are the largest at the start of the Rose Parade, especially in the area referred to as “TV Corner.” (Paul Bersebach, SCNG)

The Norco Cowgirls Rodeo Drill Team waves to the crowd during the 133rd Rose Parade in Pasadena on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. (File photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

LAUSD All-District Honor Marching Band during practice for the Rose Parade at Dodger Stadium, Wednesday, Dec 21, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The 2023 Donate Life Rose Parade float, Lifting Each Other Up, is taking shape. (Courtesy, Tournament of Roses Association)

It’s never been easy to construct a float, especially in an era of high inflation, according to Kay Sappington, who’s led Sierra Madre’s float decorating team for nearly 20 years. (Photo by Brennon Dixson)

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It usually takes more than a few volunteers to construct the mechanical giants.

Tim Estes, president of Fiesta Parade Floats, said his professional team of floatbuilders in Irwindale traditionally builds about a dozen floats each parade.

This year, they are doing only seven because of issues related to the pandemic and the ability to obtain large batches of flowers needed for decoration.

Like so many businesses, the pandemic took its toll on business when the parade was canceled in 2020, according to Estes, who said at the time he was forced to lay off his staff after losing 96% of his annual income following the 2020 parade’s cancellation.

Cities such as Downey and Sierra Madre have found ways to stay relevant despite being some of the few amateur-led entries remaining in the parade.

The increasing costs of steel and florals combined with unprecedented shipping delays have added to the roadblocks a small group faces in the race to vial 10,000 roses before New Year’s Eve.

To cut down on costs, it’s been suggested that designers use paint instead of natural items, or simply choose to not decorate every square inch of a float.

Related links

You can watch the Rose Parade parade from your couch; Here’s how
What it’s like to drive a Rose Parade float from a 50-year veteran
Rose Parade 2023: Self-built float tradition is alive and well
Rose Parade 2023: Why horses are the ‘lifeblood of the parade’
Rose Parade 2023: Here is every float participating in the parade

Sappington reminds locals the group must use natural materials, such as cinnamon, burned sesame seed or palm husks.

“And we wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said, proudly pointing to her peers who creatively find ways year after year to wow the crowds who line Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day.

Thankfully, she’s not alone in the effort after constructing a network of assistants to call on when the group find themselves in a bind.

“We’ve all come to be a family,” Sappington said, pointing to the welders, engineers and retirees who flock to the region – sometimes from out-of-state – to assist. “It’s certainly a labor of love that I know  will continue long after I’m gone.”

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