Friday, November 24, 2017
"A black day it will be for somebody"
"Black Friday" is an odd term. The day after Thanksgiving, of course, when shoppers descend upon stores to snag discounted items and, increasingly, buy stuff on sale on-line.
A carnival of cut-rate consumerism then. And bargains are a good thing. So why the "black"? Historically, a black day was something bad.
"A black day it will be for somebody," Richard III says, waking from bad dreams to find gloom over Bosworth Field.
Sept. 24, 1869 was called Black Friday after Jay Gould and James Fisk's attempt to corner the gold market. After hoarding gold for months, the two started dumped their gold supplies, made their profits and crashed the economy. The price of gold dropped 15 percent in minutes, the stock market crashed 20 percent in the next week, and panic ensued.
(The Steely Dan song, "When Black Friday Comes" is roughly based on the panic, which makes sense, given the lyrics. "When Black Friday comes/I'll collect everything I'm owed/And before my friends find out/I'll be on the road.")
In general "black" get attached to financial collapses, massacres, deadly storms—so how did it get attached to what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, the kick-off to the Christmas buying season?
The generally-accepted explanation is the term was applied to post-Thanksgiving shopping in the 1950s by the Philadelphia police, who used the term to describe the angry mobs and traffic snarls created by department store sales. This situation was worse in the City of Brotherly Love, supposedly, because it also hosted the Army-Navy Football game on Thanksgiving, which in the pre-Super Bowl era was a huge event and also stretched cops thin trying to maintain order.
The newspapers borrowed it from the police,, with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin putting it in a headline in 1961.
"We used it year after year," wrote Joseph P. Barrett, a police reporter for the Bulletin at the time. "Then television picked it up."
I have no direct personal experience with Black Friday shopping. I like a sale as much as anybody, but can't see facing the crowds. My younger son needed a new coat, and we slid by Macy's Wednesday. The store was empty. "Department stores are going away next," I said to him, as we made our selection and headed to the clerk, who assured us that it had been crowded that morning. The coat was 60 percent off, savings enough for my needs.
Usually the shopping struggles, the mobs crushing against doors, the tug-of-wars over cheap goods, is portrayed as some kind of indictment of the materialism of our society. The public, safe at home with their purchases, watches the news and tut-tuts. But with the plutocrats in control in Washington, running riot, unchecked, the way Jay Gould and James Fisk did in the Grant administration, my gut tells me that this year any Black Friday disturbances will be seen more sympathetically. Or should be viewed that way at least. With the neck of the middle class stretched, turkey-like, across a tree stump, and the Republican Congress whetting the axe, saving money and stocking up on hard goods suddenly seems blameless, even prudent. It's going to be a long winter.