The tale of two Black Fridays began with the first modern Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, which ended with an appearance by the jolly man in red. After this signal that "Santa had arrived," retailers brought out their Christmas decorations and launched their holiday advertising campaigns.
Before long, consumers came to accept the unwritten rule that stores couldn't begin advertising Christmas sales until Thanksgiving Day parades were over. Thus, the day after Thanksgiving -- later dubbed Black Friday -- became the official start of the Christmas shopping season.
In 1939, merchants appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That year, November held five Thursdays, meaning Thanksgiving would fall on Nov. 30 and effectively cut a week off the holiday shopping season. Retailers wanted to keep that lucrative week, but no store wanted to incur the public's wrath by advertising before Turkey Day. The solution was simple: Franklin D. simply moved Thanksgiving's date from the final Thursday in November to one week earlier.
The public was furious as it required a total rejiggering of holiday plans. Some Americans even refused the change, resulting in two Thanksgivings on two separate days. Until 1941, the President and 32 states celebrated on the second-to-last Thursday, while the remaining 16 stuck to tradition. Much grumbling was heard about "Franksgiving" but, eventually, the dust settled into the now stable celebration on the fourth Thursday in November.
You don't have to be a history major to know this one-week reprieve didn't help things much, however. The advertising embargo didn't hold for very long and soon Christmas ads were seen as early as Halloween. Today, holiday decorations begin sneaking into stores barely after Labor Day, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
By 1966, the Philadelphia Police Department coined the phrase "Black Friday" in reference to the heavy shopping traffic that overwhelmed their forces on the day after Thanksgiving. Bonnie Taylor-Blake of the American Dialect Society was the first to officially use the slang term in an article: "Black Friday officially opens the Philadelphia Christmas shopping season (with) massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing."
The term Black Friday had been misappropriated, strangely enough, from the stock market catastrophe of 1869, set off by gold spectators who tried and failed to corner the gold market, causing the market to collapse and stocks to plummet.
The nickname was just too delicious for the media, who soon referred to Black Friday as the day on which retailers go from being in the red (posting a loss on the books) to being in the black (turning a profit). Traditionally, accounting records use red ink to show negative amounts and black ink to show positive amounts.
Many merchants were none too happy about this new slang, considering the negative connotations of the original Black Friday stock-market crash and the suggestion they were operating at a loss until the holiday season.
While it's true most major retailers actually do make profits year round, Christmas shopping is still of enormous importance to American merchants. Some are so dependent on the holiday season that the Christmas quarter produces all the year's profits and compensates for losses from other quarters.
Still, it was hard for merchants to complain about the concept of a day entirely dedicated to shopping, shopping, shopping. Over the years, retailers realized they could draw bigger crowds on Black Friday than during post-Christmas sales. Some began opening their doors as the first faint rays of sun struck their plate glass on Friday morning. The Thanksgiving Day newspapers became heavier than a large turkey, filled with enticing coupons and slick, thick inserts.
Over the years, sales on candies and sweaters have given way to drastic discounts on electronics and the hottest kids toys. Retailers have taken to staging major sales on Thanksgiving afternoon or evening and, this year, big-time merchants like Target and Toys R Us began offering their deepest discounts in late September.
While Black Friday remains a 12-hour tradition for which consumers still "track-suit up," early sales and online shopping are making a dent in this one-day celebration of American commerce.
If you plan on heading out for some intense consumerism the day after Thanksgiving, make sure you prepare by reading our blog post "Black Friday Boot Camp."