How Thanksgiving Became the Holy Day of Consumerism: Echoes

When did Thanksgiving, once the most docile and pious of holidays, turn into the launching pad for the shopping season?

Until the mid-1970s, Black Friday had always been a notorious Wall Street episode in September 1869, when financier Jay Gould brazenly tried to corner the nation's gold supply.

At the time, the Thanksgiving holiday itself was only six years old. A writer and editor named Sarah Josepha Hale, best known for penning "Mary Had a Little Lamb," had waged a persistent campaign for decades to create a national holiday giving thanks for all the blessings bestowed on the U.S. On Sept. 3, 1863, amid the travails of the Civil War and two months after the crucial, tide-turning Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln granted Hale's wish by designating the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

Although the holiday soon became one of feasting and celebration, little in it smacked of commerce until the 1920s. That decade witnessed the emergence of the modern consumer economy with all its appendages, such as installment buying, mass media, advertising on a grand scale and a political ideology trumpeting that the "chief business of the American people is business." In most cities of any size, the local department store became a grand emporium, with a lavish selection of goods, fabulous interiors and an expanding menu of promotions to attract customers. In 1924, the immigrant employees of one of the biggest stores -- Macy's in New York -- held a Christmas parade. They dressed in costumes and marched from Herald Square to Harlem. The parade's final attraction was none other than Santa Claus.

So successful was the parade that Macy's repeated it every year on Thanksgiving Day (except during World War II) always with new and more elaborate balloon figures and with Santa as its concluding celebrity to usher in the holiday shopping season. The Great Depression slowed the progress of the consumer economy, but the parades continued. In 1939, a year after a sharp recession dimmed hopes for recovery, Thanksgiving was due to fall on Nov. 30. The National Retail Dry Goods Association asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week to provide extra shopping days. "We all know," said Frederic A. Gimbel, of Gimbels department store, "that it is an American tradition to begin Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving."

When Roosevelt obliged, utter public confusion followed. There was an uproar over the disruption of everything from calendars to travel plans to football games. Some states went along with the change; others refused to celebrate what the mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, called "Franksgiving" and stuck to the original. (Roosevelt's proclamation officially applied only to the District of Columbia.) That year, 23 states celebrated the holiday on Nov. 23, the same number did so on Nov. 30 and two enjoyed both holidays. The following year, 31 states accepted the changed date while 17 did not.

Finally, Congress enacted a law in 1941 stipulating that the fourth Thursday in November would henceforth be Thanksgiving.

After World War II, consumer spending blossomed anew, becoming an ever more powerful driving force in the U.S. economy. As its momentum increased, holiday spending grew in importance -- especially the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The idea of Black Friday emerged in earnest sometime around 1975. The phrase referred to the shopping period beginning the day after Thanksgiving as the one merchants hoped would put them in the black for the year.

While almost every U.S. holiday has been relentlessly commercialized over time, none carries the special weight of Thanksgiving as the doorway to the shopping spree that could make or break retailers for the year.

(Maury Klein is professor of history emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the author of 16 books on American history. The opinions expressed are his own.)



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