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Fashion History Lesson: The Origin and Escalation of Holiday Shopping Season and Black Friday

From the 1880s until today, the pursuit of holiday deals has been considered an American custom, family tradition, topic of political debate, and barbaric ritual all wrapped into one consumer frenzy.
Christmas shopping circa 1961. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Christmas shopping circa 1961. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry's most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, trends and more.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday bring up different things for different people: For some it's excitement over deals and a day of shopping; for others it's anger over consumerism and crowded stores. Nevertheless, they're still America's most publicized shopping days, which promise consumers once-in-a-lifetime deals and signal the unofficial start of when it's socially acceptable to spend cash in the spirit of St. Nick, and their profile escalated quickly.

For many years, it was a tradition for retailers to open early on Black Friday, offering "doorbuster" deals to entice customers to line up at the crack of dawn while still digesting Thanksgiving dinner. In the late 2000s, in an effort to outdo each other and attract deal-thirsty patrons, stores began opening as early as 4:00 a.m., followed by the controversial decision of many retailers to begin their Black Friday shopping extravaganzas at midnight. After Wal-Mart opened at 8:00 p.m. on the actual day of Thanksgiving in 2012, more and more retailers opened their doors as early as 5:00 p.m., prompting some to wonder when the so-called "Christmas Creep" would end.

Thus began the backlash. In October of 2017, amid growing frustration over the media spectacles of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the "over commercialization" of the holiday season in general, we wondered if anyone still cared about Black Friday, especially since much of the mayhem and can't-miss deals now extend throughout November and December and have become more prominent online. Even so, we still can't help but wonder what sales will be offered after Thanksgiving, which got us thinking — how did this insanity all start?

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After learning about the lesser-known origins of holiday shopping, you may never look at another Black Friday sale the same way again.

Christmas shopping in New York at the turn of the century. Photo: Library of Congress

Christmas shopping in New York at the turn of the century. Photo: Library of Congress


Christmas celebrations remained relatively small and low-key until the holiday was transformed between 1880 and 1910 into the modern gift-giving and tree-decorating extravaganza that we know it as today. That's partly thanks to widespread industrialization and a new middle class with increased disposable income. While shops in Boston had advertised the ritual of gift-giving for Christmas as early as 1808, most of America remained ambivalent about the holiday until Clement Clark Moore published an extremely popular poem titled "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) in 1822.

Until the 1880s, Christmas gifts in America were usually handmade. After more Americans moved into big cities to start jobs in factories and offices during the late 1800s, it became more common to purchase and gift manufactured items, making the holiday shopping season an essential part of life for those who celebrated the Christian holiday. Although the practice was still relatively new, Americans had already begun to fear and loath the commercialization of the holiday by 1900. [3]


In 1906, the U.S. Consumer's League formed the Shop Early Campaign to encourage people to do their holiday shopping early so as to lighten the load on retail clerks, factory workers, delivery boys and postal employees in the days leading up to Christmas. [3] Since people continue to complain about how holiday shopping campaigns seem to begin earlier each year, it's funny to think about a time when stores were encouraged to entice consumers with early-season deals for the "good of all people".

One of the most outspoken supporters of the Shop Early Campaign was Florence Kelley, a co-founder of the NAACP. In 1903, she published an essay titled "The Travesty of Christmas," which urged shoppers to start early to avoid burdening retail and factory workers, especially since child labor laws were abused the most during this time. By the 1910s, signs asking citizens to "Do Your Christmas Shopping Early" could be found across New York City; and in 1918, an advertising campaign featuring Santa Claus in a military uniform told Americans to, "Go Early to the Stores!" and to, "Take the Crush out of Your Christmas Shopping and Put It Into Winning the War."

By the 1890s, stores were already promoting Christmas shopping events for the middle of November, making today's Black Friday seem comparatively late.

Opening Christmas presents in 1941. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Opening Christmas presents in 1941. Image: Wikimedia Commons


By 1939, the length of holiday shopping season had become a presidential concern. Franklin D. Roosevelt officially changed the date of America's most gluttonous holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season, but not for the sake of overworked retail employees. Instead, Roosevelt was primarily appeasing the wishes of merchants who wanted consumers to have more opportunities to shop. While that didn't always make the season longer depending on the calendar year, his idea that American consumers should have more time to shop has become an integral philosophy of the modern holiday season.

However, up until the mid-1900s, the term "Black Friday" had only been used to describe catastrophic events such as financial crises, violent protests and other unfortunate events that had nothing to do with shopping for deals. Researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake pin-pointed the first Thanksgiving-related use of the term in an issue of Factory Management and Maintenance from 1951, which referred to workers calling in sick on the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday." The term was used in the early 1960s by police officers in Philadelphia to describe the miserable crowds and traffic they had to herd that day, which were the result of early holiday shoppers and fans who swarmed the city for the Army-Navy football game each year.

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As the story goes, public relation experts were able to put a positive spin on the chaos of Black Friday by promoting it as a "family-day outing" and a chance to embrace the Christmas spirit while enjoying shopping deals. By the 1980s, rumors spread that the name came from retailers going "back in the black," or turning a profit from holiday sales, that Friday. Taylor-Blake and other historians discount this as nothing more than a successful rebrand, although the day would go on to bring retailers lots of revenue. In 2005, the National Retail Federation helped to instigate the term Cyber Monday, bringing the tradition of Black Friday into the digital age without necessarily cannibalizing it.


While Black Friday deals might help families afford gifts, a darker side of the tradition has been exposed in recent years. Of course, the shopping holiday can take an immense toll on store employees by asking them to work long shifts and sometimes forgo holiday time with their own families. On top of that, Black Friday became cause of national concern in 2008 when a 34-year-old temporary employee at a Long Island Wal-Mart was trampled to death by surging crowds that busted through the store's doors before it was scheduled to open. In both this case and similar events, reports have claimed that crowds of anxious shoppers are quick to push pass paramedics and law enforcement, perhaps suffering from a temporary state of insanity after hours and hours of waiting in line to score a deal on a coveted item. A staggering amount of shootings, stabbings, pepper-sprayings and other disputes have been reported since 2008, leading many to equate Black Friday with intense greed and gruesomeness on top of the normal amount of stress associated with holiday shopping.

Anyone who seems shocked by the notion of deal-hungry consumers pushing and stabbing each other can look back at history for an explanation. The battle for Black Friday deals appeals to a natural drive towards competition, and the incessant news coverage of the miserable lines and consumerist carnage appeals to a darker side of human nature, one that led thousands of Romans to watch gladiators fight to the death. Of course, unlike gladiators, these shoppers are probably not being forced to endure such stressful conditions, so why would anyone subject themselves to potential violence to save some money on gifts? The answer is simple: Many people have an innate desire for competition, and when it's combined with pleasing loved ones, this competitive nature can be taken to disturbing extremes.

In 1954, anthropologist Marcel Mauss introduced the idea that "gift giving is an act of competition as much as generosity." In other words, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are about more than just scoring a flat-screen television or expensive handbag; these sales are a chance for people to prove their social status, discipline and skill. In an effort to explain why level-headed humans would be willing to push past barricades and overturn store displays, consumer researchers have found that, "The amount of effort consumers spent gathering information about their Black Friday purchase via promotions increased their likelihood of some act of misbehavior when the product was no longer in stock." [2] From this perspective, holiday deal shopping is a strategic game that is less about finding thoughtful gifts and more about outdoing others.

Black Friday shoppers at Macy's, 2016. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Stringer

Black Friday shoppers at Macy's, 2016. Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Stringer

On the other hand, violence aside, is that "game" all bad? Is Black Friday a holiday tradition akin to tree shopping and hanging stockings by the fireplace? 

One study demonstrated that Black Friday shopping can be seen as both positive and culturally important because, "shoppers engaged in a sequential set of symbolic acts: looking for deals; deciding where to shop; mapping out stores; developing in-store action plans; and assigning roles to perform." [1] While capitalist undertones are certainly in place, the study showed that many people use Black Friday as a way to bond with family members and embrace the excitement of the holiday season, making it a worthwhile tradition that extends beyond greed and materialism.


Despite the warm-fuzzy feelings mentioned above, the holiday shopping season as a whole will always be about retailers making money. And the desire to score a great deal goes beyond religion, social class and even nationality. In fact, the concept of Black Friday has been adopted by numerous countries that include the U.K., France, Germany and China.

As the media and consumer frenzy related to holiday shopping continues to be met with equal levels of desire and disgust, certain groups have taken it upon themselves to boycott stores that don't allow their employees to have Thanksgiving Day off, or to reject holiday consumerism altogether through Buy Nothing Day. Retailers have certainly noticed a growing distaste for Black Friday chaos and some have even turned to a different marketing strategy by rejecting consumerism or emphasizing their dedication to "family values" over holiday sales. Brands like T.J. Maxx and Marshall's have run ads declaring that they refuse to make their employees work on Thanksgiving (or Black Friday, in the case of R.E.I.). Others, like Patagonia, have begun donating proceeds from the day to charity. While the concept is admirable, the growing popularity of this marketing strategy is really just another way to attract loyal customers who identify with their "values."

Perhaps the negative connotations related to Black Friday will decrease as more retailers continue to scale back on some of the more extreme parts of the shopping season while rightfully putting the health and safety of their employees and customers first. The proliferation of online sales, which eliminate all risks of physical harm, is also contributing to a slightly more chill Black Friday.

While it's difficult to imagine Black Friday going away entirely, it's likely that we'll continue to see retailers alter the ways in which they plan and market their holiday discounts in today's rapidly evolving shopping landscape. 

Sources not linked:

[1] Bell, Gina Castle, Melinda R. Weathers, Sally O. Hastings, and Emily B. Peterson. “Investigating the Celebration of Black Friday as a Communication Ritual.” Journal of Creative Communications 9, no. 3 (2014): 235-251.

[2]: Lennon, Sharron J., Kim K. P. Johnson, and Jaeha Lee. “A Perfect Storm for Consumer Misbehavior: Shopping on Black Friday.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 29, no. 2 (2011): 119-134.

[3]: Waits, William. The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving. New York and London: New York University Press, 1994.

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