A Look Back at When Thanksgiving Was Basically Halloween
BY Christopher Klein
October 23, 2016
Masked children roaming door-to-door, begging for treats. Well-lubricated adults dressing up for costume parties. Sounds like a normal Halloween—except it wasn’t. Less than a century ago, this was Thanksgiving. It seems as bizarre as decking the halls on the Fourth of July, but it’s true: For decades before World War II, Turkey Day was the day for putting on false faces.
How did Thanksgiving take such a detour? According to the 1873 book Old New England Traits, in the early 19th century, poorer Massachusetts residents started knocking on doors on the holiday’s eve, begging, “Something for Thanksgiving?” As a (bad) joke, well-to-do children began dressing in tattered clothes and doing the same.
The costume idea caught on. When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863, towns from Juneau, Alaska, to Tampa, Florida, began marking the date with masquerade balls. The Tombstone Prospector took note of 1890 costume prize-winner Miss Will Sneed, dressed as a gold mine “in a gown that would inspire even the most dejected prospector to try again.”
Not to be outdone, New York City brought the trend to the next level. Officials staged a regal annual parade to commemorate both Thanksgiving and the British evacuation of New York. Immigrants spoofed the stuffy, uniformed military companies by putting on their own show. Working-class men poured out of saloons and marched through streets blowing tin fish horns and beating drums. They called themselves Fantasticals and dressed garishly as clowns, politicians, and celebrities, like Buffalo Bill. Kids raided their parents’ wardrobes to join in the fun: Boys paraded in high heels and old evening gowns, as girls marched in over-size Prince Albert coats. Sensing a business opportunity, stores started selling nightmare-inducing papier-mâché masks before the fete. Children prowled the streets on Thanksgiving morning, ringing doorbells to ask strangers, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” So many kids were sporting tattered clothes and darkened faces on Thanksgiving that by the 1900s, it was known as Ragamuffin Day.
Fantasticals died out by the turn of the 20th century, but “Thanksgiving maskers” flourished—not to everyone’s amusement. “The practice of ringing all the doorbells and demanding backsheesh is long past a joke,” The New York Times complained in 1903. “This must be a foreign innovation,” intoned a 1909 Sons of Daniel Boone hand-book, “for no self-respecting American boy would think of parading the streets dressed up like a ragamuffin and begging a cent from each passer-by.” Sadistic New Yorkers threw stove-heated coins known as “red pennies” onto the street and howled in laughter as kids burned their fingers.
Red pennies failed to stop the ragamuffins, but the Great Depression did. Everybody had empty pockets by the 1930s, and the question “Anything for Thanksgiving?” was answered with “No.” At the urging of New York’s schools superintendent, civic organizations organized costume contests and parades to discourage kids from “going ragamuffin’” door-to-door.
It worked. Thanksgiving reverted to an austere, family-oriented holiday, and by 1950, trick-or-treating had shifted to a less sacred day—Halloween. The change left grown-up ragamuffins nostalgic, even about red pennies. “I remember how my fingers got blistered,” patrolman Leo Carey recalled to The New York Times in 1931. “But they don’t have any real fun like that any more.”
The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.
HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?
It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.
In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.
SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?
You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.
BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?
Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.
By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.
WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?
If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.
According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.
SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?
Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.
DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?
Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.
IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?
It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.
Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.
DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?
Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.
In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.
In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.
In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Timesreported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”
HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?
In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.
So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.
Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.
Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.
The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.
Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.
The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.
The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.