Five years ago, over at The City Desk, I wrote a piece that served as a fake origin for Black Friday. Every year, it shows up in lots of search hits and a few online news stories here and there, sometimes fooling people, sometimes not. I thought I’d go through and see if I could still remember what the heck I was referencing in a few places-
Why it is called “Black Friday”
The Friday after Thanksgiving has become known in the last few decades as one of the busiest of the year for retailers, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. One of the names used for this day is Black Friday, which some say comes from the fact that it is the biggest shopping day of the year, putting stores firmly in the black. This is false, as the days closer to Christmas generate more in sales. For the true origins of the term, we have to dig back a few decades.
Laurence H. Black was one of the best floor men in town, working in the men’s department of the old Osberger’s Department Store(1) for over thirty years. He had been with the store since its humble beginnings as a menswear store on Richmond Avenue in the late 1920s. Except for a very brief stint in the service during World War II, he remained with the store as it grew, eventually settling into its later eight-floor retail palace on North Geary Street(2). Black was a fixture in the store, presiding over the suits, shirts, ties and millinery in his ever-present black suit (“That’s how they remember me. Black suit, Mr. Black, see?”)(3) with a red carnation in the lapel(4). In a very cutthroat industry, his was one of those rare cases in which he was respected by everyone in the city’s retail trade, regardless of store affiliation. His reputation was even cemented throughout the region, as Osberger’s expanded in the 1950s and Mr. Black would often be called upon to train sellers at the various stores.
But it was the downtown store he loved the most. He was typically one of the first there in the morning (just behind Wharton Osberger) and one of the last to leave, which is exactly as it was on November 27, 1964. Toward the end of his twelve-hour shift, as the massive brass clock overlooking the restaurant in the store’s Grande Center Court read 7:48 pm, Laurence H. Black collapsed, felled by a heart attack. Old man Osberger closed the store the next day and clerks at the city’s other retail palaces wore black in tribute.
The following year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, all of the employees wore black suits and dresses, highlighted by a single red carnation, with a moment of silence at 7:48 pm, a tradition that carried on year after year and was picked up by many other stores in the city. But, through many consolidations and sales and employee turnover and whatnot, the reason for the tribute and the tradition itself has been lost, save for a few old-timers who still remember. The small Osberger chain was dissolved in the early 1990s and the old parent company is now the owner of a chain of movie theaters in Australia(5). If you trace back through approximately fifteen mergers and acquisitions you’ll find that the old Osberger stores themselves are all now Macy’s(6). The central Osberger’s store on North Geary was converted to office space in 2001, after sitting vacant for a number of years. They’ve kept the central court and clock, however(7).
1- Philadelphia’s Wanamaker’s, now a Macy’s, but still a beautiful old-fashioned downtown department store. This season, I’ve noticed that they’ve been referring to “John Wanamaker’s” on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as though it were still around, which is fun.
2- North Geary=Market Street in Philadelphia, which at one time had something on the order of seven major department stores.
3- I think this may have been based on the “Joey Nickels” gag in Annie Hall.
4- Probably someone who would have been played by Philip Tonge.
5- The former Reading Railroad corporation (whose namesake terminal is down the street from the former Wanamaker’s) now runs movie theaters in Australia.
6- This can apply to the collapse of pretty much any regional department store chain in the last 30 years or so, but mostly I was remembering the Hudson’s—>Marshall Field’s—>Macy’s transition back in Michigan.
7- As I said before, Wanamaker’s is still a department store. I was thinking of the atrium for The Curtis Center, but now, I guess this could stand for the old Strawbridge’s down the street, which hasn’t been so lucky.