With the 2019 holiday shopping season vigorously kicking off, it’s worth realizing that the terms “Black Friday” and “doorbusters,” today associated with monstrously-discounted sales the Friday after Thanksgiving attracting hordes of frenzied shoppers, have ties to Philadelphia retailers and the pioneering department-store tycoon, John Wanamaker, who had a huge estate in what’s today nearby Cheltenham Township.
“These kinds of door-buster sales are not a recent phenomenon,” noted National Public Radio (NPR) host Renee Montagne during a Morning Edition interview of linguist Ben Zimmer on Nov. 28, 2014, “Black Friday,” following the soundbite of “Stampeding customers crashing through doors, elbowing and shoving to get in on some incredible bargains.”
As a matter of fact, “It turns out crowds were lining up for deeply discounted items as far back as the 19th century,” Montagne continued, with “one story [that] traces it back to the 1890s and a Philadelphia-based department store called Wanamaker’s.”
And, so, what was one of the main attractions driving the frenzied customers to Wanamaker’s that established the concept of department store sales?
“They were selling calico for a penny a yard, so that was a big savings,” responded Zimmer. “And it happened to be a time when calico dresses were very popular.”
I’d say more than “very popular,” judging from the next thing that happened.
“So there was a big crowd that rushed in to buy the calico,” Zimmer explained, perhaps referring to a 1925 article that appeared in the Davenport (Iowa) Democrat & Leader and an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. “And in the process, the window of the door to the store got smashed. And the story goes that a store official there at Wanamaker said that bargain certainly was a door-buster.”
Meanwhile, “Black Friday” has origins to when on “Friday, September 24, 1869, in what became referred to as ‘Black Friday,’ the US gold market crashed,” according to England’s newspaper, The Telegraph, although the term likely became popularized later in Philly.
“Police officers in Philadelphia were first to link Black Friday to the post-Thanksgiving period in the 1950s,” adds telegraph.co.uk. “Large crowds of tourists and shoppers came to the city the day after Thanksgiving for the Army-Navy football game, creating chaos, traffic jams and shoplifting opportunities.”
To make matters worse, “Police officers in the city weren’t able to take the day off work and instead had to work long shifts to control the carnage, thus using the term ‘Black Friday’ to refer to it,” an explanation that as an African American I find offensive since too often the word “black” has been unfairly and inaccurately associated with extreme negativity.
However, eventually, the negative connotation of “Black Friday” came to represent the huge profits that many retailers began to make on that shopping day, representing the black ink in their ledgers.
Sadly, increasingly countering the true spirits of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas and other religious or holiday observances, the focus on giving throughout the season has been greedily hijacked and over-commercialized to out-running others to the discounts and even slugfests.
I wonder if John Wanamaker, said to have conceived many modern retail advertising approaches, but was willing to give some of his riches to the less fortunate, ever envisioned his “doorbuster” concept becoming so artificially and ingloriously accepted by so many, near and far?
You see, the season shouldn’t be about predatory shopping, but giving from the heart, according to biblical wisdom and an African-Yoruba proverb, “What you give, you get ten times over.”
Kent Nerburn, author of Simple Truths, brings it all home, according to spiritualityandpractice.com: “Giving is a miracle that can transform the heaviest of hearts,” and “true giving is not an economic exchange; it is a generative act. It does not subtract from what we have; it multiplies the effect we have on the world.”