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A short history on the most important retail holiday in America

“Black Friday” is the day right after Thanksgiving, and is an American “holiday” that since 1952 has traditionally marked the start of the Christmas shopping season in the United States.  Indeed, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States for decades with many retail establishments offering highly promoted sales at highly discounted prices. 

At the beginning, stores would open much earlier and close much later than usual but over the years, with the money to be made becoming much more obvious, stores began to open earlier and earlier, and close much, much later.  Many began opening as early as midnight, or even on Thanksgiving and would continue to operate on to Monday, thus the creation of “Cyber Monday,” while others would remain open for a week (Cyber Week). 

The tradition of Black Friday being the start of the Christmas shopping season has been linked to the Santa Claus parades sponsored by department stores and often held on Thanksgiving.  The popular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, for example, is one of the biggest and most extravagant of its kind and has been held in New York City since 1924.  It would include the appearance of Santa at the end of the parade giving birth to the idea that Santa has “arrived” or that Santa is “just around the corner” because Christmas is the next major American holiday after Thanksgiving.  Not many are aware, however, that the origins of this retail bonanza has a bit dark side.

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In a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, legend has it that back in the early 1800s Southern plantation owners would buy enslaved workers at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving.  One can only imagine the uproar and eventual boycott of the retail holiday that this would cause if it were at all true.  Fortunately, this piece of “history” is only legend and has no actual basis in fact.  The crash of the U.S. gold market on Friday, September 24, 1869 is another animal entirely, though. 

Early in that year, ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, tried to corner the gold market by buying as much of the nation’s gold as they could.  They did this to drive the price of gold as high as possible and sell it for astonishing profits.  Unfortunately, the gambit failed and on that Friday in September the conspiracy was revealed, which sent the stock market into free-fall literally wiping out everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

Then there was how the police in the city of Philadelphia and Rochester used the term to describe the traffic and chaos that ensued the day after Thanksgiving in the early 1950s.  Apparently, hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city for the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year.  Philly cops had to work extra-long, and even double shifts to deal with the enormous crowds in department stores and traffic all over the city, a situation that shoplifters and other criminal elements took great advantage of adding to the “Black Friday” headache.

Despite the negative connotations of the adjective “black”, money always talks and the concept of Black Friday refused to be “put aside.” It began to gain traction by the mid 1970s when merchants objecting to the use of a derisive term to refer to the one of the most important shopping days of the year suggested an alternative derivation.

For over two thirds of the year, most retailers would operate at a financial loss, or be “in the red.”  The day after Thanksgiving, however, things would suddenly pick up and retailers would ride the wave of profits that would last the duration of the holiday season.  Black Friday, then, is the beginning of the period when retailers would no longer be in the red, and instead be “in the black.” 

This explanation would eventually become the accepted “reason” of the retail holiday’s name and by the 1980s, Black Friday has been the retail blow-out that America knows and loves.  It has become such as an extravaganza, in fact, that even other countries adopted it.  At least 129 countries celebrate their own versions of Black Friday, despite the fact that none of them celebrate the American tradition of Thanksgiving.  Still a Mega-Sale is a Mega-Sale and whenever there is money to be had and a deal to be made Black Friday will be alive and well in America and throughout the world.

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