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History Lesson: How Lazarus laid the foundation for Black Friday

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: How Lazarus laid the foundation for Black Friday
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Happy Thanksgiving!

Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony in New England is reputedly the man who formally gave the U.S. its first Thanksgiving – but would you believe that the post-holiday sales season that starts with “Black Friday” was actually proposed as a legal holiday by the head of a powerful well-known Columbus retailing family? This special Thanksgiving Day History Lesson can now tell the rest of the story.

A quiet, early Thanksgiving.

Apparently, the tradition of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday dates back to the early history of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, when post-harvest holidays were celebrated on the weekday regularly set aside as “Lecture Day,” a midweek church meeting where topical sermons were presented.

George Washington, at the request of Congress, was the First President to declare Tuesday November 26, 1789 as a day of Thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution.

The holiday was generally observed in New England in the early 19th century. In his 1917 memoir, James Howells recalls his own early years in Columbus and Ohio Governor Samuel P Chase asking him if he was “keeping Christmas” or Thanksgiving as many in pre Civil War America celebrated either one or the other depending upon their regional ancestry.

Fred Lazarus Jr. Courtesy CML.

In 1863, in an attempt to bring the nation together with the celebration of our harvest, Abraham Lincoln set Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.

The date was generally observed in that fashion until 1939 when Columbus retailer Fred Lazarus Jr. noticed that the holiday that year allowed the fewest possible shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (For many of you who may have never heard of Lazarus, the Lazarus department store had been an institution to generations of central Ohioans. It was absorbed into the MACY’s Stores and the name retired in 2005 after 154 years of business in Columbus.)

As head of the Federated Department Store Alliance that he helped to found, Fred Lazarus Jr. traveled to Cincinnati from Columbus to meet with the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants as well as to float the idea to the publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Bill Wiley.

According to the July 1966 edition of The Nation’s Business, Mr. Lazarus said to Bill Wiley:

‘How would you like to have a hand in changing Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November? It will increase your advertising and it will do the whole economy a great deal of good.’ He said, ‘I’d be delighted – if it isn’t too expensive.’

Mr. Lazarus then sent a surrogate to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he went for it and allegedly promised to allow the Cincinnati Enquirer to “scoop” the news. However, FDR must have forgotten and didn’t wait and the paper lost the exclusive. Fred Lazarus spent the entirety of the next few days on the telephone with the editors of the nations leading papers trying to convince them to praise FDR for this grand idea.

Apparently, most folks liked the idea and eventually in 1941 – Congress passed a law setting the date for the celebration of Thanksgiving on the 4th Thursday of November.

So as we celebrate (or eviscerate) the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” holiday – we can thank/blame Columbus’ own Fred Lazarus Jr. for changing the culture of the nation.

Shopping on Black Friday.

As I wrote previously, most folks did like the idea but one key person did not: Fred’s older brother Simon. The Nations Business article goes on to say:

About a week after the announcement he (Simon) said to me, “What damn fool ever thought up this kind of thing and balled up every football game in the country?”

Apparently, Fred had completely fouled up all of Simons plans for the OSU – Michigan Football game that was played on November 25, 1939.

The more things change…

Happy Thanksgiving!

For further information please read Look to LAZARUS by David & Beverly Meyers & Elise Meyers Evans.

Columbus Historical Society’s Bicentennial Book Bash

Taking place at COSI on Thursday November 29, featuring tasty treats, delicious drinks, and the chance to meet the authors and have your books personally autographed.

6:00-7:00 Reception and Author Meet & Greet

7:00-8:30 Author Talks

8:30-9:30 Author Meet & Greet

The Columbus Historical Society celebrates those who are capturing and retelling the stories of Columbus. This year, CHS features five new books-and books make great gifts for the holidays!

Aviation in Columbus by Richard Barrett

Ohio Jazz: A History of Jazz in the Buckeye State by David Meyers, Candice Watkins, Arnett Howard and James Loeffler

Saint Woody: The History and Fanaticism of Ohio State Football, by Bob Hunter

A Historical Guidebook to Old Columbus, by Bob Hunter and Lucy Wolfe

Columbus Past, Present & Future, by the Columbus Creative Cooperative

Columbus Revealed, Jamie Greene Editor

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