Another year, another Black Friday, come and gone. There didn’t seem to be too many viral Black Friday videos, but I’m sure some will surface. Nice.
The first Black Friday in the U.S. had nothing to do with shopping, but did share the greed. On September 24, 1869, the price of gold plummeted after the Federal Government caught wind of a plot to corner the market on the New York Gold Exchange by speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk.
Gould and Fisk sought to profit from the Federal Government’s issuance of fiat dollars (the U.S. was on the gold standard, fiat dollars were not backed by gold) to finance Reconstruction after the Civil War. The general consensus was that the government would later redeem the fiat dollars with gold.
Gould and Fisk enlisted President Ulysses S. Grant’s brother-in-law, financier Abel Corbin, to gain access to Grant and argue (deceptively) against the government sale of gold. Corbin convinced Grant to appoint a confidant, Daniel Butterfield, as assistant Treasurer of the United States, and Butterfield agreed to tip off the conspirators of any government gold sale.
Gould and Fisk then began to buy and hold gold, driving the price up to a 30% premium. When Grant discovered the deception he ordered the immediate sale of $4 million in gold. When the government gold hit the market the premium immediately collapsed, wiping out many speculators, including Abel Corbin. Oddly, Gould and Fisk were relatively unscathed. Hedge pioneers, perhaps. Credit Gould and Fisk for the Steely Dan song, though.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the current meaning for Black Friday, the Friday after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday and the start of the Christmas shopping season, came into the common vernacular. The earliest references to Black Friday as the shopping day following Thanksgiving appears to originate in Philadelphia, used to describe the heavy traffic. Years later a popular explanation was that this was the day that retailers finally made it “into the black” for the year.
However, this is a little fuzzy as well. Thanksgiving in the U.S. was not always observed annually, but rather by proclamation. Early Thanksgivings were sporadic, and it wasn’t until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, that the U.S. had an annual observance.
Then, in 1939, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was convinced by Fred Lazarus, Jr. (founder of the Federated Department Stores, later Macy’s) to move Thanksgiving from the last Thursday (there were five that year) to the 4th Thursday of November to provide another week of Christmas sales and stimulate the economy. At the time, it was thought to be inappropriate to advertise Christmas before the Thanksgiving holiday. My how times have changed.
This led to a two years of bickering (the 4th Thursday was called “Franksgiving“, the last Thursday “Republican Thanksgiving”) with the usual doom, gloom, and the ever-popular Hitler comparisons. This nonsense continued until December 26, 1941, when Roosevelt signed a bill marking the 4th Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.
By then we had more pressing matters (Pearl Harbor was December 7), and most States observed the law, although some continued to observe the 5th Thursday in those years so equipped, the last being Texas, in 1956. And thus was created our modern version of Black Friday. With a few bumps along the way.
But modern Black Friday gives pause to think about what we need, what we want, and why we always want more than we need. There’s a gray area in between want and need. And we seem to live in a time when we are driven to push what we want over into what we need.
We need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, shelter from the elements, protection from those who would prey upon us, and human interaction. Since we live in a capitalist economy, and since we aren’t all fortunate enough to be capitalists, we need employment, or some other means, to obtain what we need. Everything else is want. And as long as some don’t have what they need, fighting over what we want seems pretty shallow. Black Friday seems aptly named.