Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Friday

I have to be frank. I don't like shopping. I have always been one of those people who prefers to go into the store, get what he wants, and then get out of there as swiftly as possible. I see no point in wandering around a retail store looking for bargains, even on things that I might want or even possibly need. It is for that reason that I usually avoid stores on the day after Thanksgiving, now widely known as Black Friday. As nearly everyone knows, Black Friday is the official start of the Yuletide shopping season. Many, many people will rush to the stores on this day hoping to find things on the cheap. Sadly, for the most part these bargain hunters make it almost impossible to get out of any store in a timely manner.

Indeed, I feel that I was very lucky yesterday. My sister had run out of her diabetes medication and I needed to get groceries. To conserve gas we decided to simply go to WalMart yesterday morning, despite the crowds of shoppers (the need for her diabetes medicine outweighed any desire to avoid bargain hunters). We were fortunate in that we were able to get out of WalMart in a little over fifteen minutes. At any rate, when I told my second best friend (who hates shopping as much as I do) that I was going to WalMart yesterday, she looked at me as if I was insane until I explained to her my sister's situation with regards to her diabetes medication.

Anyhow, I bring this up because Black Friday has become a firmly rooted tradition in American culture. What is more is that it is not a recent phenomenon. Oh, it is true that the name by which it has become known is of recent vintage. The earliest use of the phrase Black Friday referred not to the day after Thanksgiving, but the Friday before the Christian Easter, the day better known as "Good Friday." It is on this day that Christians commemorate the Crucifixion of Jesus, hence the reason it was called "Black Friday." In the United States, the name "Black Friday" was also applied to September 24, 1869, a day when there was a financial panic as the gold market in the United States collapsed. And as I mentioned yesterday, it was also the name of a 1940 movie starring Boris Karloff.

As to how the day after Thanksgiving came to be called "Black Friday" in the United States, it could to have its origins in the Philadelphia area, or at least the eastern United States. The first printed references to the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday" were both published on November 25, 1975 and both deal with the Philadelphia area. One article was in the Titusville Herald (Titusville being a suburb of Philadelphia), dealing with the crowds of shoppers on this day. The article specifically states that bus drivers and cabbies called the day "Black Friday" because of the headaches they receive from the day. Another article appeared in no less than the New York Times. This article dealt with the Army-Navy football game, which always takes place after Thanksgiving. Making reference to the shopping done on that day, this article mentions that Philadelphia bus drivers and police officers call the day "Black Friday" because of the extreme traffic. It would then seem that the day after Thanksgiving received its name of "Black Friday" because of the hordes of shoppers out on that day.

While both articles reference the Philadelphia area, we cannot be certain that the term originated there. A year later, on November 27, 1976, an article in the Times Herald Record of Middletown, New York referred to the day of Thanksgiving as "Black Friday," with particular reference to the hordes of shoppers out on that day. It is possible that the Times Herald Record got the term from the articles in the New York Times and the Titusville Herald, but then it is also possible that, while the first two times the phrase appeared in print make reference to the Philadelphia area, the name "Black Friday" originated elsewhere in the eastern United States. That having been said, references to the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday" are sparse before the Naughts. The term is used in an article in the St. Petersburg Times dated November 27, 1986. That article makes reference to the Tampa Bay, Florida area and states that the day after Thanksgiving is called "Black Friday." It is also used in the article "This Year It's Green Friday," from the November 27, 1998 issue of Time. Regardless, use of the term Black Friday for the day after Thanksgiving seems to have entered widespread usage around 2002. That year alone the term was used in venues ranging from the Chicago Tribune to CNN.

While the term Black Friday may have only originated in the past thirty years, the tradition of the day after Thanksgiving as the official start of the Christmas shopping season goes back considerably farther. As might be expected, it is rooted deeply in the history of the observation of Christmas in the United States. For much of the United States' history, the nation was sharply divided on the subject of Christmas. New England was largely settled by Puritans, who regarded Christmas as a largely pagan celebration (given how much of the old Germanic pagan holiday called Geol in Old English and Jól in Old Norse carried over into the Christian holiday, they were right to some degree). In fact, in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts actually banned any observance of Christmas beyond attending church! Most of New England would not go this extreme, but from the 17th to 19th centuries Christmas was simply another work day for most Yankees. This was in sharp contrast to the American South. Settled by Royalists loyal to Charles I, Christmas was the social event of the year. There was simply no holiday observed with so much enthusiasm in the South as Christmas.

Of course, before Black Friday could develop, the holiday of Thanksgiving would also have to be established. The nation was also sharply divided with regards to Thanksgiving. Annual Thanksgiving observances in New England date back to the late 17th century. In New England it was one of the biggest celebrations of the year. On the other hand, from the 17th to 19th centuries, the South hardly even recognised the existence of the day. This would be changed by one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, started campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday as early as 1827. She finally succeeded in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed it into law. Over the next several decades, then, Thanksgiving would catch on in the American South.

At the same time New England's attitudes towards Christmas were changing. In 1820 New Yorker Washington Irving published his popular book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. Illustrator Thomas Nast, born in Germany but raised in New York, popularised the image of Santa Claus in the pages of Harper's Weekly. The growing popularity of Christmas in New England was not lost on retailers. Christmas having traditionally been a time of gift giving, retailers gradually began to capitalise on the holiday. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, sweet shops in New York City started having Christmas sales. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus' headquarters. Influential department store Macy's was among those to jump on the Christmas bandwagon. The year 1867 marked the very first time the retailer was open until midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1874 Macy's set up the first of their legendary Yuletide window displays. That same year Macy's brought Santa Claus to the store for the first time (here it should be noted that they were the first store to have their own Santa Claus).

With American retailers capitalising on Christmas, it would not be long before the day after Thanksgiving would be established as the first day of the holiday shopping season. References to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving occur relatively early in the 20th century. As early as 1907 the The Evening Times of Cumberland, Maryland makes reference to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. Such references would grow with even more frequency as the years passed. In the December 10, 1908 issue of the Charleroi Mail of Charleroi, Maryland, a retailer mentions that they have been busy since the day after Thanksgiving. In an issue of the Indiana Progress dated November 27, 1917, a retail store makes reference to their holiday line being ready the day after Thanksgiving.

By 1920 the idea that the day after Thanksgiving marked the first day of the holiday shopping season was so entrenched in the United States that Gimbels' first Thanksgiving parade in Philadelphia in 1920 marked the arrival of Santa Claus at their store. Macy's would follow suit with their own parade in 1924. In fact, Macy's would even go a step further. While it is now known as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, that first parade was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade. Even then the Macy's parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus. Hudson's department store in Detroit would also hold their own Thanksgiving parade in 1924. That parade also ended with the arrival of Santa.

By the Thirties the day after Thanksgiving was so well established as the first day of the holiday shopping season that it even resulted in the date of Thanksgiving being moved. Retailers had long wanted a longer holiday shopping season and so they lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to move the date of the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the next to the last Thursday in November. Roosevelt then changed the date of the holiday in 1939. An outraged public forced the President to move the holiday back.

It would seem that the day after Thanksgiving or Black Friday was long ago established as the first day of the holiday shopping season. That having been said, it is not the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States, as often believed. According to Snopes.Com, while Black Friday may be the day when the largest number of shoppers rush to the stores, it is not the day when the most money is spent. According to statistics from the International Council of Shopping Centres provided by Snopes, the date that the most money was spent at retail stores from 1993 to 2002 ranged from December 18 to December 23. Despite the hordes of bargain hunters who flock to stores on the day after Thanksgiving, then, it would seem that most of us procrastinate when it comes to our holiday shopping, waiting a few days before Christmas to do the bulk of it.

Despite the fact that Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States, it is certainly one which has had a long association with that particular activity. This year many stores opened as early as 4:00 AM Friday so that eager bargain hunters could do their shopping. What is more, this is nothing unusual. Even when I was growing up in the Seventies, I can remember when stores would open up inordinately early in order to accommodate shoppers. Even the pushing, shoving, and outright fighting over merchandise that accompanies some Black Friday sales was not unknown then. I can remember hearing news reports about such events even as a boy. Indeed, anyone who was alive in 1984 can probably remember the fist fights that broke out over the then wildly popular Cabbage Patch Kids. This year alone police were called to break up fights between shoppers in places as diverse as Cullman, Alabama and Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

As much as I hate shopping, Black Friday has never been a tradition in which I have taken part. Even as a child I don't think my family ever went shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. I suspect my mother and father were much like me--I simply do not care to brave the crowds of often crazy shoppers in search of a bargain. In fact, I have to say that the fifteen minutes I spent in WalMart yesterday was fifteen minutes too long. That having been said, I recognise that for better or worse, Black Friday has been established as a tradition for around 100 years. And whether one likes shopping or not, it seems like it is here to stay.

Postscript: Okay, I know it might seem odd that I am writing about Black Friday on Saturday, but yesterday was Boris Karloff's 120th birthday, a much more important event in my mind. As usual, I have my priorities....


Aaron said...

Thanks for the nice history on Black Friday and Thanksgiving and Christmas in the USA as a whole.

What a great stie you kind of site..chock full of pop culture and every now and then you get a great history lesson like this.

I always thought Black Friday meant the day the merchant's books went from RED to BLACK because of all of the sales. They went from a loss for the year into a profit.

Anyway... Thanks again for the site and keep up the good work..Your Underdog piece is still my favorite.

Take care, have a upcoming Merry Christmas and Season's Greetings. Which by the way...some people today complain about folks never used to say Happy Holidays...well they must have forgotten...Season's Greetings..SAME THING

Aaron Buckles OH

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Aaron. And have a merry Christmas yourself! As to people complaining about "Happy Holidays," I think they have forgotten that people have been saying for a long time. I mean, there was that old song by Irving Berlin from Holiday Inn--"Happy Holidays."