The real story of Black Friday is lost in the myths of time
Whatever its origins, you can't escape it - but there is a cure, thanks to a guy who sold harpsichords
There has been a lot published about the origins of Black Friday. Peddlers of fake news claim that the expression was first used by slave merchants, who on a chosen Friday (certainly not Good Friday, one would hope) were said to charge less for their chained and derogated human wares.
The grim history of slavery is all too real, but linking it to the sales that take place on Black Friday today is utter nonsense.
The excellent myth-busting site Snopes.com points out that the expression “Black Friday” was coined more than a century after the abolition of slavery.
Here’s the real story: In the early 1960s, reporters in Philadelphia began using “Black Friday” to describe the bad mood of harassed policemen trying to control traffic and tomfoolery on the day after Thanksgiving, which happens on a Thursday in November.
Most people in North America, where Thanksgiving is celebrated, were in no state to work on the Friday after the public holiday, so they took the day off and went shopping, or attended baseball games, or simply enjoyed the opportunity to cause hungover mayhem in the streets.
The day understandably caused headaches for policemen, and although no one knows who first used the phrase “Black Friday”, it spread quickly and became a day to be dreaded in the calendar of policing.
Its associations with heavy traffic, unruly behaviour and bad driving might lead some to suggest that every day is now Black Friday, but let’s leave that aside and look at those who tried to put an end to a day dedicated to rampant capitalism. (Taking “rampant capitalism” to mean that evanescent force which causes you to buy stuff you do not need and cannot afford, because it is cheaper than it normally would be.)
Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann, later known as Wally, was born in Berlin in 1922 and died in France last month. His family fled the Nazis and moved to the US, where Wally, an accomplished musician, started a revolutionary factory of sorts that made the Ikea equivalent of build-your-own harpsichords. As interesting as all that might be, the pertinence of Wally’s life to this article is his commitment to the idea of a holiday from spending.
The idea of a day off from consumerism originated in Canada (naturally) but the collaboration of Zuckerman with other global political activists of his time raised it to the level of International Buy Nothing Day. This still exists as the antithesis to Black Friday, although for understandable reasons it doesn’t have quite the same reach in terms of awareness (understandable because if you can’t buy anything on Buy Nothing Day, you can’t buy advertising to tell people about Buy Nothing Day).
Despite this paradox, International Buy Nothing Day is still a thing. It’s today, in fact.
Maybe it won’t stop us from being tempted into buying a hedgehog-shaped teapot or a thousand years’ worth of goji berries for a fraction of their normal price, but I am willing to bet that, come the Monday after Black Friday, many consumers will be suffering from spending-frenzy regret and will be far more amenable to the appeal of a day on which one leaves one’s purse at home.
Which brings us to Blue Monday, which is similarly tainted by untruth.
Since 2005, a spreading internet rumour has claimed that “scientists have identified” a particular Monday in January as the statistically most depressing day of the year, the day on which sad people, uncomforted by all the lovely things they might have bought at the shops on Black Fridays past, decide to escape from debt, boredom, loneliness or despair by putting an end to themselves.
Again, trusty Snopes explodes this spurious garbage, tracking it to an article paid for by a public relations firm working on behalf of a travel company (the message, naturally, was that we can beat the blues by going on holiday).
The “scientist” quoted in the original “study” was in fact a part-time tutor who became the first in a series of scientific “professionals” to receive financial recompense for telling the public how depressed they were and what products and services would help them feel better.
Perhaps the moral of all this is that there’s no escaping capitalism, but if everyone bought a do-it-yourself harpsichord kit on Black Friday, it would probably take them at least 10 years to properly assemble it, never mind learn how to play it with any degree of competence.
And this, if you ask me, is a good enough reason to raise a glass of some celebratory beverage (bought yesterday, of course) to Wally Zuckerman on International Buy Nothing Black Friday.