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Happy birthday, Black Friday! Celebrating 75 years

Ready, set, shop!

Consumers have been banging down retailers' doors on the day after Thanksgiving for so long, Black Friday has arguably become as much of a tradition as the turkey dinner itself.

But this shopping extravaganza, which has long been the unofficial kick-off of the holiday season has gotten so big that it no longer requires a definition—and it certainly didn't pack the punch it now has.

People enter Macy's Herald Square as the store opens its doors at 8 pm Thanksgiving day on November 28, 2013 in New York City.
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People enter Macy's Herald Square as the store opens its doors at 8 pm Thanksgiving day on November 28, 2013 in New York City.

Before retailers lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move forward the Thanksgiving holiday in 1939—an effort to elongate the shopping calendar—the holiday fell on the last Thursday of November.

Black Friday also didn't feature the big doorbuster deals that are now synonymous with the event.

"Back then sales didn't exist," said Dan Butler, a senior advisor for the National Retail Federation. "People had product and it was full price."

The ultimate calendar shift

In 2014, it's common to hear shoppers bemoan the fact that holiday goods seem to hit shelves earlier and earlier each year. But in 1939, President Roosevelt ordered the most significant change of all to the holiday calendar.

That year, Thanksgiving was scheduled to fall on Nov. 30, leaving only 24 days for shoppers to make their Christmas purchases. With a nation in the throes of the Great Depression, retailers asked the president to move the holiday one week earlier, to the fourth Thursday of the month, in an effort to lengthen the critical shopping period.

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The precedent of the last Thursday of the month was set by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 with his Thanksgiving proclamation.

"There was some pushback in the public, just like now there's some pushback about opening [stores] on Thanksgiving Day," Butler said.

The public's biggest issue with the calendar shift was that the President didn't make his decision until late October, said Richard Pickering, deputy director of the non-profit Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

By that time, Americans had already made their Thanksgiving travel plans, schools had already set their vacation days and college football games had already been scheduled.

Further complicating the issue, Pickering said, was that at that point in history, it wasn't only the president who made a Thanksgiving declaration—state governors did, as well. That led to about 60 percent of the states following with Roosevelt's decree for an earlier Thanksgiving, while about 40 percent kept the date as it was.

"The furor that it caused," Pickering said.

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Following two more years of confusion, in which the president could schedule Thanksgiving on whichever Thursday would be most amenable to the shopping season, Roosevelt signed a bill that permanently declared it would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month.

It wasn't until a few years later when the term "Black Friday" was coined, Butler said. While many speculate it was given this name because it was the day when retail churned a profit—or moved its sales "into the black"—Butler contends it was termed by employees and customers, who were referencing the fact that the stores were so busy, and retailers started preparing them before the sun came up.

Black Friday evolves

Even today, the holiday calendar is a point of debate in the retail industry. Some argue that when Thanksgiving falls late in the month, it puts pressure on retailers to make sales over a shorter time period. Others argue that it doesn't matter how many days fall between Thanksgiving and Christmas—people will still spend as much as their budgets allow.

It was this sort of calendar controversy that bore part of the blame for 2013's lackluster holiday sales. With Thanksgiving landing on Nov. 28, retailers had six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas than they did the prior year. As a result, many decided to open their doors on Thanksgiving Day, often for the first time.

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This shift earlier has already reared its head this year, with many stores—including Macy's and Targetplanning to open their doors two hours earlier. Retailers including Wal-Mart and Amazon also inched forward their Black Friday sales, with some events kicking off Halloween weekend.

"For retailers, it is providing them with more time, and more time equates to more potential shoppers," said Dr. Ross Steinman, an associate professor of psychology and chairman of the department at Widener University.

But it wasn't always this way. Despite the day after Thanksgiving's historical significance as the kickoff to the holiday shopping season, NRF's Butler said that it wasn't until the '50s and '60s when retailers started to use Black Friday as the first day they'd put their fall goods on sale.

While that may not seem like such a big deal today, when sales happen year-round, "I remember people waiting for things to go on sale," Butler said.

"It really became ingrained in peoples' mind that it was a great day to get value."

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Although Black Friday still delivers steep discounts, they often aren't what's driving shoppers to the stores anymore, Steinman said. Instead, many see the event as a tradition, and a way to spend time with family.

He added that as Black Friday evolves to adapt to changing consumer behaviors, this will likely continue to drive the motivation behind Black Friday shopping.

"For many consumers, it can be viewed from the lens of nostalgia," Steinman said. "I believe this is why many consumers are venturing to the stores to shop on Black Friday even though the deals may not be [as good] as they once were."