Life in America before ‘Black Friday’

NEWS-LEDGER — NOV 21, 2012 —

DARYL FISHER, author of the weekly 'My Back Pages' column in the News-Ledger


This year I decided I wasn’t going to wait until the very last minute to do all my Christmas shopping so off I went this past Saturday to a shopping mall in downtown Sacramento. I quickly found what I was looking for and was standing in a not-too-lengthy line when I suddenly found myself listening (eavesdropping is such a nasty word) to the two women in front of me as they chatted away about their plans for the day after Thanksgiving.

“I can hardly wait for Black Friday,” said the taller of the two with a big grin. “Are you going to be doing what I’m going to be doing?”

“Are you kidding?” answered the shorter of the two. “I plan on being out my front door before the sun comes up!”
Not having a clue what the two women were talking about, I asked myself what Black Friday might be. I had definitely heard the phrase somewhere before, but I couldn’t seem to recall in what context. Maybe it was the day people were jumping out of windows in New York City back in 1929 when the stock market crashed and destroyed so many fortunes, I thought to myself. Or maybe it was a particular Friday back in the Middle Ages when more people died from the Black Plague than on any other day? Anyway, I ended up thinking about it all the way home and the first person I saw when I walked in the front door was my daughter, so I asked her if she had ever heard of that phrase before.

“You don’t know what Black Friday is, Dad?” my daughter asked in amazement.

“I’m afraid not.”

“What world do you live in?”

“I’m often not sure,” I admitted.

“Well,” explained my daughter after looking at me like I had been hanging out on the moon, “it’s the day after Thanksgiving when all the stores have huge sales to attract holiday shoppers, and other than the day before Christmas when everyone does their last-minute shopping, it’s the biggest shopping day of the whole year.”

  More specifically, I learned that Black Friday is actually the day that most retail businesses hope to finally go into the black (or profitability) for that business year and there really are sales galore scheduled for that specific day to attract potential shoppers across the nation. And apparently the reason stores open their doors so early in the morning is that studies have found that most shoppers spend most of their money at the very first store they visit.

“But I don’t remember you or your mother going shopping for big sales on the day after Thanksgiving,” I told my daughter.

“That’s because neither one of us want to take our lives into our own hands! People go absolutely crazy on Black Friday the minute the store doors open, pushing other people to the side and ripping away merchandize already in the hands of other people. I mean, people will risk life and limb just to get themselves a Black Friday bargain and who wants to have `Trampled to death in Wal-Mart’ on their tombstone?”

I was mentioning all this to my mother the other night when she explained to me that there was actually a time in this country (and not all that long ago, too) when shopping in general, and shopping for bargains in particular, wasn’t the only reason to exist.

“When I was young,” said my mother, “most everyone lived out in the country and shopping was something we hardly ever did. If we did go into town, it was just on Saturday, and outside of picking up some sugar and flour, we didn’t spend too much time in stores. My mother made almost everything we needed at home. She would take hand-me-down cloth from some of the neighbors and sew clothes for us kids, and when it came to food, we had most everything we needed right on the place. There were chickens and rabbits for meat, and Mom canned just about everything she could get her hands on, including vegetables from the garden and fruits from the trees in our backyard. So shopping in stores was just something that wasn’t a big part of most people’s lives back then.”

“What if you needed a tool or a radio or something like that?” I asked.

“Well,” explained my mother, “every house where I lived received both the Sears and Roebuck catalog and the Montgomery Wards catalog, and anything we needed that we couldn’t make ourselves or find in the few stores that were in town we would just order out of one of those big catalogs.”

When my mother suddenly started to smile I said, “What’s so funny?”

“Well,” she said, “I was just thinking that back then those pages in those catalogs weren’t really used all that much to buy things with because no one had much spending money. What we really used them for was toilet paper.”

“You know,” I said, returning her smile, “now that’s actually a pretty good commentary on what has happened to this country over the years in terms of everything being so commercialized and people feeling like they have to go out and buy everything in sight to feel alive.”

“Well,” said my mother, “I don’t know about all that, but I do know that all these colorful and fancy catalogs they keep sending me in the mail would have been pretty worthless back when I was young.”

“And why is that?” I asked with interest.

“Because the pages in them are way too slick nowadays.”

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Copyright News-Ledger 2012

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