History of Christmas Shopping and Black Friday

Ah yes. It's that time of year again: shopping early for Christmas presents before it's all gone. For those working in retail, it's about long lines, crazy customers, excessive amount of items customers were buying, no breaks, headaches, shoplifters, etc.

So how did this crazy phenomenon began? Was this "holiday" actually called "Black Friday?" Let's dig in...

History of Christmas Shopping/Origins of Black Friday

How the name, "Black Friday," came about actually dates back to 1950s Philadelphia:

"Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache."

- Sarah Pruitt, "What’s the Real History of Black Friday?"

Usually, I think that this trend goes back EARLIER. And I was right. And I don't think it was THAT crazy back then.

It started in the 19th century Britain when Christmas started to become a more spirited, and homey, holiday during the Victorian Era, and the influence of Charles Dickens' "The Christmas Carol."

"The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions… There were pears and apples… there were bunches of grapes… piles of filberts… there were Norfolk pippins… The Grocers’! oh the Grocers’!… the blended scents of tea and coffee… the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon… the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar… the figs were moist and pulpy,… the French plums blushed in modest tartness… everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress: [and]… the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day."

- Charles Dickens, The Christmas Carol (1843)

Britain, in particular, was a nation with manufacturers, industrialists and shopkeepers. Victorians never knew they could use this opportunity to infuse their businesses with Christmas. Ever since then, department stores in Britain began to grow in the 1870s. Every year, shopping took place in late November, possibly how the idea of early Christmas shopping began.

Fun Fact: Department stores were also trending in the city of Philadelphia in the late 19th century. It started with John Wanamaker who modeled the first department store "Grand Depot" in the city, and many other stores followed: Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbel Brothers, and the Lit Brothers.

With department stores rising with consumerism, it has created a new Christmas custom. But they never knew it would create chaos in stores.

The growth of Christmas shop windows attracted shoppers into going into their stores. It caused the police to arrive at the scene:

"In Swan and Edgar’s this morning, for example, the hubbub on the staircase was simply deafening. A continual stream of ‘sightseers’ wended their way up and down… I leave Evan’s and retrace my steps as far as Oxford Circus. The windows in Peter Robinson’s are so enthralling it seems a pity to go in… I stand for a moment at Marshall and Snelgrove’s window, and my feminine heart begins to pine for the beauties behind the glass."

- The Outlook (December 1898)

In the 1930s, the craziness from customers caused shopkeepers and retailers to maintain the atmosphere of their stores. There were stores that were encouraging customers to shop as early as possible to make life easier for the employees.

"Shop in Ambler"

I was impressed that I was able to find a few clippings from the Ambler Gazette that relates to early Christmas shopping and avoiding large crowds. There was a slogan Ambler used called "Shop in Ambler," where people can shop conveniently at local stores in Ambler with low prices (that reminds me of those bargain stores like the TJX stores). They said that if people shop at their stores, it would benefit the whole community.

I would assume they were competing against the department stores in Philadelphia since those department stores were very successful in consumerism. They were encouraging their own community to shop at their own stores instead of traveling half an hour to Philadelphia and shop. They want to make it convenient for them, it's that simple!

It was Small Businesses Vs. Department Stores

Clipping from Ambler Gazette (November 22, 1923): Page 12
Clipping from Ambler Gazette (November 27, 1924): Page 11
Clipping from Ambler Gazette (November 28, 1935): Page 1


Connelly, Mark. "Shop ’till you drop: a brief history of Christmas shopping." History Extra. Last modified November 14, 2019. https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/christmas-shopping-history-commercial-victorian/.

Pruitt, Sarah. "What’s the Real History of Black Friday?" HISTORY. Last modified November 20, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/whats-the-real-history-of-black-friday.

"Wissahickon Valley Public Library's Ambler Gazette Collection." POWER Library: Pennsylvania's Electronic Library. Accessed November 1, 2020. http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/wivp-gazett.

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