Isabella Coleman: Rose Parade pioneer honored

Isabella Coleman in a photo from 1915.
Isabella Coleman in a photo from 1915. Tournament of Roses Parade/Courtesy

The dozens of flower-laden floats that sparkle along Colorado Boulevard all have a little bit of Isabella Coleman in them.

Coleman, who grew up in Pasadena, created the design and decorating techniques that float builders use today. Her creations thrilled crowds for nearly 60 years — and long after her death, she is still the most respected float designer ever.

The Smithsonian Museum is honoring Coleman with a special exhibit.

The Tournament of Roses Parade has been a Southern California tradition since 1890. In the early days, the floral displays that floated down Colorado Boulevard were simple.

Originally, floats were all horse-drawn, the kinds of conveyances people used in their daily lives.

Larry Bird, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, says you typically tied flowers onto your vehicle, onto the wheels, "with marigolds and things that you could get in your garden at home."

When she was 12, Isabella Coleman pitched in to help decorate flower-covered wagons for the Tournament of Roses. That was 1904.

A few years later, a teenaged “Izzy” Coleman entered her own float in the parade and won second place in the “horse-drawn conveyance” category. From then on, Coleman was hooked.

Over the next 50 years, she designed more than 250 award-winning Tournament of Roses floats. The Smithsonian’s Larry Bird says Coleman transformed the art of float design.

She was the first to glue flower petals onto her floats. She used tiny vials of liquid nutrients to keep flowers fresh.

Bird says she also was a pioneer in devising the steel undercarriages of these things that allowed them to become really immense. "Her ideal float was low to the ground," he says, "so it looked literally as if it was floating. And she used aircraft wheels, tiny aircraft wheels, so these things would just hover at knee level of curbside spectators."

Coleman wasn’t an engineer or a trained artist. But she had ideas. Every year, she’d draw more than a hundred sketches of possible new floats — perhaps a dragon theme inspired by a magazine ad, or a heavenly locale inspired by the shapes of clouds.

Coleman would take her sketches to a commercial artist to create a polished rendering that she’d then pitch to a commercial sponsor. That was the business part of float design, although Coleman didn’t exactly run her workshop like a business.

Bird says she had a filing system that was as domestic as her business model. And she kept the renderings and all of her drawings — because she never knew when one would be used again — under her rugs in her house. "She said it didn’t take up space and you were able to keep them flat."

It was a labor of love. Profits were plowed into next year’s floats.

"I don’t think it really ever occurred to her that it was a business," Bird says. "And her son told me that it wasn’t until the Depression when her husband lost his job — he was a banker in Pasadena — and so the family eked out a living because of her float work."

Isabella Coleman finally gave up float design in 1969. But it was hard. She admitted, “I keep getting new ideas.”

Five years after she retired, the Tournament of Roses honored her by adding a new parade award: the Isabella Coleman Trophy for the best presentation of color and color harmony in flowers.

Now through next fall, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History also honors Coleman in a special exhibit called “Holidays on Display.”

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