Today in Brand History: Black Friday
Or should I say retail history?
A brand is “a product, a service, or a concept that is easily distinguished from other products, services, or concepts in a way that it can be easily communicated and understood”. By that definition, Black Friday is a brand, one that is so closely associated with the kickoff of the holiday selling period that it is used as early as July to convince consumers to start shopping early. Even though traditionally, Black Friday is recognized as the day after Thanksgiving. The day is referred to as “black” because it is the first time that retailers operate profitably, running in the “red” for most of the year. Good for retailers, good for customer, right? Well, not so fast.
The term Black Friday was first used in 1869, and it had nothing to do with retail. It referred to Friday, September 24th when gold crashed and nearly everyone on Wall Street was left bankrupt. Financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk took advantage of their connections with the Grant Administration, attempting to corner the gold market. When President Grant learned of this, he ordered the Treasury to release a large supply of gold, which caused prices to plummet by 18%. Fortunes were made and lost in a single day. Gould, Fisk, and many others, including Abel Fisk, Grant’s brother-in-law, lost everything.
The term wasn’t used in reference to the day after Thanksgiving until the 1950's, first by a manufacturing trade publication who referred to it as the day that workers would call out sick to enable themselves to take a four-day weekend. In 1952, it was used in connection to retail, specifically in Philadelphia not to celebrate the busiest shopping day of the year, but one of the busiest days at the police station! The police grew concerned with the increased numbers of shoppers coming in from the suburbs the day after Thanksgiving to shop, while others traveled in from across the country to attend the Army-Navy game that Saturday. The crush of traffic in the city on Friday, and the resulting rise in crime led to the day being referred to as "Black Friday." This term and definition stuck and slowly expanded to other parts of the East Coast.
Not the most positive of narratives. By the 1960’s, retailers pushed back, seeking to challenge the negative narrative by advertising the Friday after Thanksgiving as “Big Friday!” and eventually Saturday as “Big Saturday!” Signs hit the stores, ads hit the paper, but it didn’t sway the public. The term “Black Friday” continued to spread and eventually softened a bit, appearing in The New York Times on November 29, 1975, in which it referred specifically to "the busiest shopping and traffic day of the year" in Philadelphia and beyond.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that retailers around the country were finally able to successfully recraft the Black Friday narrative around a more positive image, one that represents what many believe today, retailers finally turning a profit after months of operating at a loss, where the holiday selling season officially kicks off, and the best deals can be had.
And the crowds busted down the doors.
Now that the myth of where Black Friday has been addressed, what about the Thanksgiving connection to the kickoff of the holiday season. That can be tied back to the early Christmas parades, the first being Eaton Department store in 1904, when Santa would arrive. The Macy’s Day parade debuted in the 1920’s and as these after Thanksgiving parades took hold, it reinforced the belief that it was inappropriate to advertise Christmas and the holiday season prior to Thanksgiving.
The problem? With Thanksgiving typically being set by the President as the last Thursday of the month, during five-week months, the loss of a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas could negatively impact sales. Our modern-day Thanksgiving holiday, now celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, was highly influenced by Fred Lazarus, founder of Federated Department Stores (eventually Macy's). He and other prominent business leaders convinced President Roosevelt that rather than stick with the traditional "last Thursday in November" as President’s would approve in years past, with five Thursdays in 1939, moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday that year would help lift the nation out of the Depression. The President agreed and set Thanksgiving as the “second to last Thursday” to gain retailers more selling time.
Well, it did stir up a bit of controversy. Sixteen governors decided their states would
have Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month as usual, and for two years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days state by state until Congress passed a law in 1941 setting the date for Thanksgiving once and for all as the fourth Thursday of November. Except Texas. They held out until 1956.
Did you follow all of that? Thanksgiving wasn’t always on the fourth Thursday of November, Black Friday originally had nothing to do with retail, and when it did, it wasn’t a good thing. Throw in the connect to the Army-Navy game. Retailers managed to convince a President to move Thanksgiving to generate more sales since it was inappropriate to promote the holiday prior to that time. Retailers created a new narrative about the meaning of Black Friday to put a positive spin on it, only to later start it in February.