A Brief and Terrible History of Black Friday

We know, we know–we too plan to jump out of the nearest window if we have to hear the phrase “Black Friday” one more time. But as we scrolled through our news feed this morning we grew curious: what is the history of this horrible retail plague that empowers stores to sell lots of stuff by driving people up the wall with anxiety? And how did it come to haunt us so?

According to various trivia sites, the earliest roots of this sociological nightmare may lie with the very first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, held on the Friday after Turkey Day in 1924. Wait, you mean the shameless commercialization of the holiday season began with…a shameless commercialization of the holiday season? Color us shocked!

Retailers weren’t satisfied with these blatant promotional extravaganzas. Why? Well, once upon a time, Thanksgiving always fell on the final Thursday of the month. That Thursday sometimes occurred during the fifth week of November, leaving stores with fewer days to promote their Christmas sales.

So what did they do? They corralled their lobbyists, who convinced then-President Franklin Roosevelt to move the official date up one week. The change was more controversial than you might expect; citizens protested, and the United States essentially celebrated two Thanksgivings until Congress passed a law right after what must have been a very frustrating Christmas in 1941, officially changing the date to the fourth Thursday in November.

By the time the 60’s rolled around, Black Friday had already turned into something approaching the freakout we know today, but the name doesn’t refer to that dark holiday cloud that arrives each year to herald impending doom.

By most accounts, it began its pop culture life as a term used by Philadelphia policemen to describe post-Christmas traffic and congestion. Unsatisfied with these negative connotations, retailers performed a PR coup and somehow convinced the public that the phrase actually concerns the fact that this is the day, of all days, when retailers record enough sales to put them “in the black.”

Why do so many Americans continue to participate in Black Friday despite the fact that we all pretty much hate it? We can’t quite answer that question.

For more on the the psychological tricks that marketers use to convince you to spend lots of your precious time and money on a day when the deals really aren’t so great, check out this great post on the “behavioral economist’s nightmare” by Kevin Roose of New York Magazine.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!