In the hustle and bustle of modern times, Black Friday has become synonymous with bargain hunting, long lines, and frenzied shopping sprees. It’s that day of the year when consumers eagerly snatch up discounted products and retailers eagerly rake in the profits. But have you ever wondered how this shopping extravaganza came to be known as Black Friday? Today, we’ll embark on a journey back in time to uncover the origins and evolution of this peculiar tradition.
While we now know it as Black Friday, the tradition of retailers enticing shoppers to flock to stores on the day after Thanksgiving dates back much further than you might think. In fact, it can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when major department stores like Macy’s and Eaton’s were pioneering the concept.
These stores, always on the lookout for innovative ways to boost their holiday sales, decided to sponsor parades that would take place the day after Thanksgiving. These parades became a cornerstone of their Christmas advertising campaigns, effectively jumpstarting the festive season. Naturally, this led to a surge in post-parade shopping, as people eagerly scooped up gifts and holiday essentials.
As time went on, a unique tradition emerged among these retailers: they refrained from launching their full-scale Christmas advertising campaigns until after Thanksgiving, specifically after the parades concluded. This practice gave rise to a sort of unwritten rule in the retail world, marking the official commencement of the Christmas shopping season.
By the 1930s, the day after Thanksgiving had solidified itself as the unofficial start of holiday shopping across the United States. However, this tradition came with its own set of challenges. In years when Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday of November, retailers bemoaned the short holiday shopping season, believing it limited their potential profits.
In response to the concerns of these retail giants, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a significant decision in 1939. He decided to move the official date of Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday in November, effectively extending the Christmas shopping season. The hope was that this would bolster retail sales, providing an economic boost.
However, not everyone was on board with Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving calendar shift. Many individuals and states refused to adjust their Thanksgiving celebrations accordingly. This divergence led to the rather mocking term “Franksgiving” for the government-sanctioned holiday. Astonishingly, 22 states chose to stick with the original Thanksgiving date, creating a bizarre situation where Thanksgiving occurred on two separate dates in some parts of the country.
In 1941, Congress took decisive action to resolve the Thanksgiving date conundrum. They passed a law that officially set Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. President Roosevelt ratified this law, finally establishing a consistent date for the holiday. This decision meant that Thanksgiving could fall on either the last or second-to-last Thursday of November, depending on the year.
The Birth of “Black Friday”
But how did this day of frenzied shopping come to be known as Black Friday? The term itself didn’t gain popularity until the mid-1960s and only became widely recognized over the last two decades. Several theories surround its origins, but the most likely explanation can be traced back to Philadelphia.
Philadelphia police officers, bus drivers, and taxi cab drivers had good reason to dread the day after Thanksgiving. The city would be engulfed in traffic congestion and throngs of shoppers, making their jobs exceptionally challenging. One of the earliest documented references to “Black Friday” appeared in December 1961 when Denny Griswold of Public Relations News wrote about the post-Thanksgiving days in Philadelphia:
“In Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday. Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by… merchants with their Deputy City Representative… He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.”
While the attempt to rebrand it as “Big Friday” didn’t catch on, the term “Black Friday” persisted in Philadelphia. Over the next decade, references to this particular Friday as “Black Friday” began to appear more frequently in various newspaper archives.
The Retailer’s Spin
In the 1980s, retailers sought to distance themselves from the negative connotations associated with the term’s origins in Philadelphia. Instead, they attempted to reframe the narrative by suggesting that “Black Friday” was so named because it marked the day when retailers finally turned a profit for the year, moving from the red into the black.
This reinterpretation, however, doesn’t align with the reality of the retail industry. Most major retailers report profits in their quarterly SEC filings throughout the year. Moreover, there are no documented references to this theory predating the 1980s. Meanwhile, the connection to Philadelphia’s traffic woes offers a more compelling and historically grounded explanation for the term.
Debunking Other Theories
There is another theory, occasionally circulated, that associates the name “Black Friday” with the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression. However, this theory falls flat when examined closely. The 1929 stock market crash occurred on a Tuesday, not a Friday. Furthermore, the actual “Black Friday” stock market scare took place in 1869, happened in September, and was related to gold prices – it had nothing to do with shopping or the day after Thanksgiving.
Origin in the 19th Century: While the tradition of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving gained significant momentum in the 20th century, the concept itself dates back to the late 19th century. Retailers, even back then, recognized the potential of the post-Thanksgiving period for boosting holiday sales.
Post-Parade Shopping: As mentioned earlier, major department stores used to sponsor parades on the day after Thanksgiving as a way to kickstart their Christmas advertising campaigns. What’s lesser known is that these parades were not only a marketing strategy but also a way to keep their employees busy during the slow holiday season.
The Birth of “Big Friday”: Denny Griswold’s suggestion to rename Black Friday as “Big Friday” in Philadelphia didn’t gain traction. However, it’s an interesting tidbit that shows how the name struggled to take hold even in its early days.
Government Pushback: When President Roosevelt changed the official date of Thanksgiving in 1939, he faced considerable resistance. It’s not widely known that some people and states staunchly refused to adhere to the new Thanksgiving date, leading to a Thanksgiving divide in the country.
Two Thanksgivings in Texas: While most states chose one Thanksgiving date or the other, Texas decided to embrace both. Texans celebrated both the government-sanctioned Thanksgiving and the traditional Thanksgiving date, resulting in two Thanksgiving holidays.
The “Franksgiving” Controversy: The term “Franksgiving” was coined to mock President Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving date change. It’s less known that this derisive term persisted for a couple of years before the Thanksgiving date was standardized.
Legalizing Thanksgiving: The Thanksgiving date was officially set into U.S. law in 1941. It’s remarkable that it took until then for the date to be legally established, considering the holiday’s long history.
The Role of Parades: While parades were crucial for retailers, they were also instrumental in shaping the modern-day Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This iconic event not only helped retailers advertise but also became an essential part of American pop culture.
The Influence of Gold Prices: The stock market crash of 1869, sometimes associated with the term “Black Friday,” was linked to gold prices. It’s interesting to note that financial market events had historical connections to Black Friday, albeit not the shopping-related ones we know today.
International Expansion: Black Friday, once a distinctly American tradition, has gradually spread to other countries. While it may not be celebrated in the same way, retailers worldwide have adopted the concept of offering discounts and deals on the Friday after Thanksgiving, inspired by the American tradition.
So, the next time you’re gearing up for a day of Black Friday shopping, remember that this tradition has a rich history that spans over a century. From department store parades to presidential proclamations and Philadelphia traffic jams, the evolution of Black Friday is a testament to the power of tradition and commerce in American society. While the true origin of the name might still be debated, there’s no denying the impact it has on the holiday season and the hearts of shoppers everywhere. Happy shopping!