World

Black Friday: Shopping craze origins has nothing to do with slavery – here’s the real backstory

By J Brooks Spector 27 November 2017

While J. BROOKS SPECTOR stayed away from stores and malls on “Black Friday”, the actual origin of the term provides an opportunity to unravel fact from fiction and look at the way myths emerge. And, yes, he is considering joining the electronic hordes on Cyber Monday, via his computer. Or maybe he will just give out Chanukah gelt instead.

All around the world, people have hurled themselves at the just-opening doors of stores, shopping malls and – increasingly – online shopping sites to participate in a global celebration of the unbridled consumerism of Black Friday. This new event comes on the day after the American holiday of Thanksgiving, but it has been eagerly adopted by millions of others worldwide. Estimates are that Black Friday sales – both in physical bricks-and-mortar stores and through online purchases – hit a new American sales total for the day, eclipsing every previous year’s tally.

Where did this madness come from? When I was a pre-teen in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, nobody had ever heard of Black Friday in America as the shopping mania it is now.

Thanksgiving – on the fourth Thursday of November – was that great American holiday that celebrated a rather airbrushed paean of praise to the Pilgrim Fathers. These voyagers had tempted the fates by journeying from England to New England on a small, leaky sailing vessel in search of a place where they could claim their right to religious freedom as fanatical Protestant dissenters, back in 1620, against the prevailing orthodoxy in England at the time.

However, unable to cope successfully with the new environment they had placed themselves in, they were rescued from starvation by the kindly and environmentally conscious Native Americans living in and around Plymouth and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (How such interventions were eventually repaid is a less well depicted element in the usual run of history, as it has been taught, however. Interested readers may wish to Google the history of King Philip’s War for themselves.)

As a celebration of this obvious demonstration of divine favour on their works (and towards America more generally), the Pilgrims’ saga became a core element of the founding legends of the American experience – familiar to every American child from the inevitable school pageant, recounting a suitably tidied-up version of this story. Along the way, the traditional meal of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, succotash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and a whole groaning board of other now-traditional items became the afternoon meal pictured in the ionic Norman Rockwell illustrations that have come to help depict the holiday (See the author’s earlier story on this holiday, as well as his renowned recipe for the perfect turkey here. But the original Thanksgiving feast was unlikely to have featured a turkey (then a wily and skinny and very canny wild bird). Rather, it was much more likely to have featured the very plentiful codfish (even used by the Native Americans as fertiliser in the growing beans and maize), as well as easier to hunt venison and other woodland game. But, never mind, virtually no one in America goes out and kills a deer for Thanksgiving these days when those giant, commercially raised turkeys are easily available.

Anyway, by the mid-1950s, in a time of Eisenhower-era prosperity and complacency, Thanksgiving inevitably featured a turkey dinner, followed by a post-prandial nap, or the family’s watching or listening to a broadcast of one or two American football games. Pre-turkey, earlier in the day, family activities might also have included viewing the much-touted Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, broadcast on television, live from downtown Manhattan.

Thanksgiving also marked the quasi-official beginning of the Christmas season as people began putting up Christmas lights on their houses, began the search for that perfect tree, and started the shopping needed to fill up the spaces under that tree or in some other spot like a clothes closet. Retailers made sure their stocks of all those “must have” items were on the shelves in order to guarantee seasonal sales targets. At this time in America, most department stores and other high-end merchants were still in downtown locations or on the American equivalent of the high street in smaller cities and towns, rather than in the shopping malls that were only just beginning to spring up throughout the newly built suburban areas. Or perhaps people were already pouring through the annual Sears or Penney’s holiday catalogues so they could order merchandise with enough lead-time to reach their homes by the holiday.

As a result, shoppers thronged the downtown shopping areas and in a bit of journalistic excess, in 1961, one reporter for The Philadelphia Bulletin, Joseph Barrett, described the scene of the crowds milling from the big department stores like Gimbels and Wannamakers and the other nearby stores, and the congestion on the buses, trains and streets. Barratt described the streets packed with thousands of black-hatted and black-coated shoppers (people still dressed up to shop) and his description of this frenzy coincided with the need for the full strength of police manpower to deal with these crowds – and their glum depiction of this holiday assignment as they were dragooned into work from any leave days they might have been taking – in order to deal with this Black Friday.

Moreover, at the same time, Philadelphia began to fill up with close to 100,000 out-of-town visitors all arriving to attend the annual Army-Navy football game, an immensely popular contest between the two military academies – and the parties that accompanied this clash. And this only added to the already-frantic traffic, congestion and chaos. Not surprisingly, this term for the day after Thanksgiving stuck and it eventually began to spread across the nation as a convenient handle to depict what was happening as the Christmas shopping season kicked off.

Writing about Black Friday, Hillary Stout in The New York Times, digging into the history of the term, noted,

Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, who has researched and written about the term, says its association with shopping the day after Thanksgiving began in Philadelphia in the 1960s — and even then, the reference wasn’t positive. The local police took to calling the day Black Friday because they had to deal with bad traffic and other miseries connected to the throngs of shoppers heading for the stores.

Needless to say, that usage didn’t sit well with local retailers. They tried, according to Mr Zimmer, to give the day a more positive name: Big Friday. That did not take, but eventually retailers — in Philadelphia and beyond — managed to spin a new connotation: The day the [accounting] books went from red ink to black [although the earliest usage of the term Black Friday in connection with accounting seems only to date from 1981]. Most consumers probably don’t know — and don’t care — about any of this. They want deals. The rebranding of Black Friday has been so successful that others have tried to spread the wealth across multiple days of the week as the holiday shopping season has grown ever more competitive.”

The Snopes.com website adds another wrinkle in the etymological hunt, noting,

The earliest known use of ‘Black Friday’ in such a context [i.e. the day after Thanksgiving] stems from 1951 and referred to the practice of workers calling in sick on the day after Thanksgiving in order to have four consecutive days off (because that day was not yet commonly offered as a paid day off by employers)…” Now, of course, Black Friday has come to be “celebrated” around the world, regardless of whether or not a country has ever even heard of the Pilgrims and the American Thanksgiving holiday, let alone consumes turkey and the trimmings.

Image: A New York Times article, 28 November 1975, describing Black Friday’s place in Philadelphia’s calendar.

Even though this seems reasonably clear, and in line with the way words take on meanings from their social context and gradually adopt new meanings and usage, in recent years, largely courtesy of social media, and complete with grim illustrations intended to show slave sales being carried out immediately after Thanksgiving, Black Friday has been given a faux history, linking it closely to the evil of slavery. According to this fanciful version of history, Black Friday was the day after Thanksgiving when slave merchants would sell slaves – sometimes at a discount for some inexplicable reason – in order to help slave-owning and purchasing farmers to prepare their fields for the next growing season. This explanation fails to take on board the fact that most American fields had already been harvested by then, and real field work would not take place in them until spring.

The larger concept makes little historical sense either. Thanksgiving was not an American holiday set for any one specific date until 1863 by presidential proclamation, during Abraham Lincoln’s administration – and in the midst of the Civil War then being waged to put an end to slavery. Moreover, in years before that, the Pilgrims’ saga did not resonate as strongly with Southern planters as it might have in the North-east and New England. Back then, Thanksgiving as a nationally defined, secular civic celebration had not yet taken on the national importance it now holds for Americans.

But the popular hold this faux explanation has for many people can be read as an illustration of the still-fraught nature of race relations in American society, more than 150 years after the Civil War and the end of slavery, and the fact that more than 50 years have now passed since the great legislative accomplishments of the civil rights revolution. From this perspective, then, Black Friday, as a special sale date for slaves, becomes deeply symbolic of the way every bit of American history and its national myths are bound up in the racial divide the country must still endure.

This year, there may also be yet something else that has helped stoke this belief in a fanciful bit of history for those concerned with the still-problematic nature of race and racial inequality in America. At the same time Americans have been celebrating the gustatory pleasures of Thanksgiving and the shopping orgies of Black Friday, there have been terrible revelations of actual slave markets in Libya.

The secretly recorded auctions of West Africans who were crossing Libya to gain passage to Europe and freedom from war, want, and famine – but who had been captured by slave traders and sold into bondage instead – have been highly visible on television and in social media and on the internet. This year, at least, the unanticipated juxtaposition of revelations of contemporary slave markets and a traditional Thanksgiving almost leaps out at one. And even if any actual slavery connection to Black Friday is a fiction, the baleful reality of Libya’s slave yards serves to reassert the ghastly reality of slavery as a stain on society and to insert it in the popular discourse.

But the wheels of commerce will roll on in spite of almost anything. Most recently, not content with their proceeds from Black Friday, merchandisers have added a new wrinkle to entice shoppers to part with their savings. Next up is yet another rendezvous with shopping frenzies – this time, it is Cyber Monday. Online purchases are being promoted heavily as the most convenient way for millions to stock up on all their seasonal gifts, instead of those tedious, tiresome expeditions through shopping malls where one never finds anything anyway. Ho Ho Ho! DM

Photo: Shoppers are seen during the Black Friday sales in New York, USA, 24 November 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE/JASON SZENES

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