Friday, November 23, 2012

An Old Fashioned Black Friday

As usual, my Thanksgiving table yesterday was attended by an eclectic mix of ages and characters. The only thing they all have in common is that all are single. That is, of course, the new normal. A year ago, for the first time, a majority of adults in the US were unmarried, and the number of singles continues to rise. Married people are now the ones pursuing an alternate lifestyle. Ad hoc table assemblages like mine soon may be the rule.

But that’s not the topic of this blog. (If I ramble, blame the effects of turkey overdose.)

Now the Day After T’Day progresses, and, as the afternoon transitions to evening, the aftereffects of yesterday’s overindulgence slowly wear off. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine trolling the malls the day after Thanksgiving. For me, no Black Friday deal can be that good. Plenty of people feel otherwise.

For more than 100 years, the Christmas shopping season has been regarded as beginning the day after Thanksgiving, which in 1939 FDR moved from the traditional last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday. (In 1939 the last Thursday was the 30th, so his change shifted it to the 23rd, which added an extra shopping week.) However, I don’t recall the term “Black Friday” being used for the day when I was a kid. A quick look at Wiki reveals that the term became general around 1975, having been local Philadelphia jargon for about 20 years prior. The folks in Philly used it to complain about the traffic and crowds. As the term spread, it took on another meaning: it is the moment in the year when most retailers’ balance sheets finally move from red to black.

It’s common for terms to have multiple origins. As a totally unrelated example, the name Jeep apparently came from GP, which was just an otherwise meaningless manufacturing designation painted on the Ford version of the vehicle (the most common version, built under license from Willy’s). However, it was a general purpose vehicle, and most soldiers assumed GP stood for general purpose, which helped spread the term. Willy’s smartly adopted Jeep as a trademark.  (The brand is now owned by Chrysler.)

The Black Friday I remember from my schooldays was September 24, 1869 (not from personal experience but from history class – I’m old but not that old) . The US went off the gold standard in 1862, and in 1869 the greenback currency had not yet returned to it. President Grant wanted to expedite the return. The first step toward that goal was to stabilize the price of gold through strategic sales and purchases by the Treasury. Grant’s desire for a convertible currency conflicted with the plans of big-time speculators Jay Gould and Jim Fisk who schemed to corner the gold market. They commanded enough resources and drew in enough banks into gold and gold-futures purchases to drive the price up from $125 per ounce to 165. One of their confederates, however, was Abel Corbin, who was married to Grant’s sister. On this occasion the connection did not serve him well. In the presence of Gould and Fisk, he asked President Grant not to intervene against the rise in the gold price. It was the wrong thing to ask. Grant understood what their game was, and on September 24 Secretary of the Treasury Boutwell dumped government gold on the market, which sent the price crashing from 165 to 138. A panic ensued as brokerages and banks closed down. Thousands of investors went bankrupt. Jay Gould, however, came out fine. He had sold on the crest of the market. Fisk seems not to have been harmed either. A Congressional Committee could find no smoking gun, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Gould got the word from someone in the Treasury about what was about to happen.

Much as I prefer a good price on gold to a good price on a TV set or winter coat, we’re probably better off with the modern version of Black Friday than the old one. Both have a way of emptying pockets though.

From the October 16, 1869, Harper's Weekly

Clip from Trading Places


  1. While I had heard about the 1800s event, I didn't know it was called Black Friday. I've always heard about it in the current terms, especially when my father was talking about it during the video store heyday. Actually that date was never a huge one for the video business. People tended to order and purchase their movies ahead of time. Of course my dad never ran any special sales that day, so that could have something to do with it. :)

    1. So far, at least, there is no other meaning for "Cyber Monday," though several e-tailers have e-mailed me today with the information that "Cyber-Monday continues on Tuesday." I'll leave the logic of that unexamined.