A Brief History of Black Friday: Does Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday prove we have crossed the Rubicon into mindless consumerism?
Black Friday is the day following the 4th Thursday in November, the federal Holiday of Thanksgiving, and is the unofficially official beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
This is why when you went outside today you saw hordes of mouth-breathers (like this author) who stumbled over themselves and others, effectively tap-dancing on grandmothers necks in order to get ‘drastically reduced prices’ on mass-produced short-lived memes like Tickle-Me Elmo and Cabbage Patch Kids (or Supras at Zumiez).
What is this consumer Bacchanalia and ritual to the god of green that has america gridlocked in attempts to get sale-priced things we don’t need, and what does Black Friday reveal about American culture?
A Brief History of Black Friday
Black Friday has its roots in shopping frenzies, although it was not a cheerfully used term volunteered by retailers who would self-identify as being a part of the problem.
Black Friday is very similar to Boxing Day sales common to Imperial Britain’s Commonwealth Nations, such as Australia and Canada. There are a few etymologies of the term- one is a Philadelphia origin that explains Black Friday as a day of dread where the shoppers crowded the city and streets, with the phrase ‘Black Friday in use before 1961.
Denny Griswold, writing in 1961, explains:
“For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday. Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by the merchants with their Deputy City Representative, Abe S. Rosen, one of the country’s most experienced municipal PR executives. He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday. The media cooperated in spreading the news of the beauty of Christmas-decorated downtown Philadelphia, the popularity of a “family-day outing” to the department stores during the Thanksgiving weekend, the increased parking facilities, and the use of additional police officers for guaranteeing a free flow of traffic … Rosen reports that business over the weekend was so good that merchants are giving downtown Philadelphia “a starry-eyed new look.”
After 1975 we see the term widely used outside of philadelphia, with the context or negative basis seemingly forgotten.
Another explanation of ‘Black Friday’ posits that it is the point that retailers turn a profit seasonally, in a spin on the accounting term ‘in the black’. While both origins work after the fact, Philadelphia’s parentage of Black Friday with its original negative connotation seems more real-life.
In recent years we see businesses opening earlier and earlier to get a competitive edge over other retailers. Some retailers open the day before, one-upping midnight openings. Gray Thursday or Black Thursday refer to these encroachments of Black Friday over Thanksgiving. Online retailers such as Apple and Amazon have facilitated the spread of Black Friday far beyond its american frameworks, to any would-be consumer with an internet connection.
Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday
The less terrible next-of-kin to Black Friday is Small Business Saturday, which is a focus on local retailers and merchants with brick-and-mortar locations, and an avoidance of big box-stores.
All the consumers that fell through the cracks are swooped up and patronized with deals on the Monday following Thanksgiving, known as Cyber Monday, due to the focus on online transactions and deals.
Consumerism as Cultural Impetus
While it is easy to brush of all this behavior off as dystopian present-day phenomena, consumerists and taste-makers set the course of this nations culture, with purchasing power playing a huge role in the nationalistic nativism of our insurrectionist patriots and founding fathers.
The market revolution was a boom-period in american culture derivative of advancements in technology, infrastructure, and communications, as well as the shift in public attitudes after the Great Awakenings.
The successes of the american grandees and expanding middling and mercantile castes led to a plethora of choices in american markets. The incredible range of american and European goods presented to the colonists punctuated an internal vagueness about national identity. Were the British colonists American, or British?
The mirrors, furs, furniture, hats, and fine clothes allowed for consumers to express their individuality, not only as sovereign beings with varied tastes, but as citizens who were beginning to desire a sovereign nation.
The cotton gin of Eli Whitney, the improved steamboat of Robert Livingston, the 1825 Erie Canal, new toll roads and railroads, and an official mail system all worked to freely propagate and produce goods, information, and new attitudes which culminated in unique and nouveau american culture.
Before the market revolution, in the american revolution, we saw women realize and leverage their purchasing power with boycotts directed at British merchants, merchants friendly with the British, and merchants selling British goods. Women best leveraged their gender limitation in the domestic sphere to ‘vote with their feet’, in this case for the entire household. Women even held spinning parties where these nascent libertarians spun yarn to be made into home-tailored clothes, effectively shutting down some demand for British exported textiles and fashions.
This realization regarding the effects of our purchases is seemingly lost on the majority of modern Americans. To compound the issue there is a pervasive and intrinsic superficiality and avaricious demand for goods that america exemplifies. To put it another way- A specter is haunting America- The specter of Consumerism.
So what can we do to slow or even work against the hordes of mindless buyers?
Buy Nothing Day (BND) is an global day of exercised purchasing power, where social activists or other concerned people work to counteract the rampant avarice and shopping orgy of Black Friday with a day dedicated to purchasing… nothing.
First actuated in Mexico by Ted Dave, with subsequent promotion from AdBusters, Buy Nothing Day leaped over the border and has become another option for the Friday after thanksgiving, in contention with Black Friday, here in America.
Occupy!, the occupy wall street amalgam social movement, has recently endorsed and moved to raise awareness of how our local purchases enrich our community, latching on to the Small Business Saturday marketing meme with their Reoccupy Main Street campaign.
And although it isn’t as polished or catchy as the previous campaigns, workers at Walmart today have threatened to strike, with some walking out due to Walmart’s aggressive marketing practices during Black Friday and the holiday weekend. Some forty-six other states also saw labor-oriented protests and action.
While the gains are hard won and easily lost, it is through premeditated action directed at the businesses profit engines that america was able to eke out it’s expansive middle-class, which has been subsequently suppressed by the plutocrats and oligopolists since it’s high-point in the 1970’s with their campaigns against unionized labor.
We should all keep track of where our dollars go, and effectively vote with our feet in-line with our shared interests. What else can we do? And what do our purchases tacitly or explicitly endorse?
Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future journalistic hack work.
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