A tale of retail: 1660 to Black Friday

A tale of retail: 1660 to Black Friday

For those who love shopping, or are just looking for a bargain, Black Friday is a date is everyone’s diary. But how did today’s culture of shopping frenzy start?

Britain’s first shopping mall opens

The shops at the Royal Exchange in London, c. 1666

The shops at the Royal Exchange in London, c. 1666

Opened in 1571 as a trading floor, the Royal Exchange added two floors of shops, making it a prototype shopping mall as far back as 1660. Selling luxury and imported goods, having a concentrated hub for a variety of shops was certainly unusual at the time and considered so prestigious that just two years later a book titled Great Britains glory, or, A brief description of the ... Royal exchange [sic] was published, lavishly explaining the full variety of different products available.

Amongst commodities, the book lists jewellery “richly set in gold”, enigmatically named cosmetics like “rare beauty waters for your ladies face”, wedding “silks and satins”, as well as somewhat unnecessarily instructional accounts of accessories such as “gloves for the hand and garters for the knee” (Theophilus Philalethes, 1672).

Department stores are established

Shopping centres became more widespread in the 19th century with the development of a new concept, the department store. Harding Howell and Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine opened in 1796, selling across four departments, three of which are still staples of the industry - perfume, haberdashery and jewellery. The fourth - the fur and fans department – might have hinted at the now ubiquitous fashion seasons, but would nonetheless be more of a surprise to find at your local John Lewis today.

While Harding Howell and Co’s may now be largely forgotten, some of the biggest names in the industry appeared early-on, helping to define what a department store should be. Harrods would open its doors in 1849, while Selfridges became a mainstay of Oxford Street in 1909 and expanded the number of departments under one roof to a hundred. The addition of restaurants and a roof garden further helped establish shopping leisure activity, and not a chore. 

The Mantle (cloak) department at Selfridges in 1909

The Mantle (cloak) department at Selfridges in 1909

Christmas gift giving is popularised

The stage was set for shops to cash-in on a relatively new tradition – giving Christmas gifts. Decorating a tree with presents became hugely fashionable in the Victorian age, after the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the Royal Family following this German tradition. Retailers were quick to realise the potential of the Christmas market with Macy’s in New York introducing special festive window displays in 1874 featuring porcelain dolls, and JP Robert of Stratford showcasing a Santa’s Grotto for the first time in 1888… clearly pester power was already powerful.

Change to American law establishes Black Friday’s date

And with Christmas shopping booming, the marketers moved in, drawing huge crowds of eager shoppers to parades in North America. As early as 1905, sponsored by the local department store Eaton’s, everyone’s favourite resident of the North Pole was appearing at the Toronto Santa Claus Parade.

Santa climbing the ladder from a float to the Eaton’s department store during the 1918 Eaton's Santa Claus Parade in Toronto.

Santa climbing the ladder from a float to the Eaton’s department store during the 1918 Eaton's Santa Claus Parade in Toronto.

A few years later in 1924, the world-famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade started, signalling the day after Thanksgiving as the de facto start of holiday shopping, with celebratory discounts soon making it the busiest shopping day of the year. Christmas retail grew so important for the economy that during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt actually moved the official date of Thanksgiving forward by a week so that the shopping season could start earlier.

And with Thanksgiving’s date firmly embedded in culture, so too was Black Friday’s; gaining its name and notorious reputation in the 1960s. Twenty years later, the phrase really caught the popular imagination in America, after twenty five more, Cyber Monday would get everyone clicking ‘add to basket’, with the date finally hopping the pond to bring the UK Black Friday in 2013.

But, despite the discounts, for many there’s still nothing quite like the last-minute mad dash of Christmas Eve.

What's on: virtual museum exhibits

What's on: virtual museum exhibits

How early department stores shaped the world

How early department stores shaped the world