Friday, November 28, 2014

The Two Black Fridays of 1963

Christmas in Kansas City, 1963.  Despite the pomp and pageantry of Black Friday and the holiday season, Americans were downtrodden by the recent death of their president.  (Courtesy tacitus on Imagur.)

As the Thanksgiving holiday of 1963 quickly approached, retailers and store owners had much to be hopeful for.  The Christmas shopping season would soon be upon them.  Ohio's Mansfield News Journal expressed optimism when it wrote, "Cash registers are playing the merchant's favorite tune again.  The Christmas buying spree is on!  Some retailers feel it will be a 'boom' year.  They base their predictions on layaways which started as early as July this year and are already 10 to 15 percent ahead of last year."  One store manager in Mansfield reported that sales on Christmas merchandise consisted of 25% of his business over the month of November. 

An improved economic climate seemed to add to the positive premonitions.  Stagnation from the 1958 economic recession finally seemed to be wearing away.  Time reported later that year that the "U.S. economy in 1963 showed a vitality that hardly anyone had looked for when the year began. The year opened with gloomy forecasts of a downturn—but the downturn never came. It resounded to calls for a tax cut to prevent a downturn—but did well without the cut." Although "a lot of worry was expended on it, the U.S. economy produced a year of good, steady growth."  President Kennedy envisioned such progressive economic advancement as a pillar of his forthcoming 1964 re-election campaign.  Simultaneously, financially empowered American consumers relished the approaching opportunity to make benefit of Black Friday sales on November 29.

The Blacker Friday of 1963.
The celebratory opening of the holiday shopping season was undercut, however, exactly one week earlier when gunshots in Dallas claimed President Kennedy's life.  The same issue of the News Journal that expressed anticipation of Christmas shopping concurrently mourned the sudden demise of the commander-in-chief.  "America observes Thanksgiving Day but her heart won't be in it," the newspaper observed.  "The tragic death of President John F. Kennedy was too recent and too deeply etched for a normal observance of the traditionally happy time of bountiful feasts and family reunions."

Accordingly, stores suffered in the first phases on the 1963 holiday season merely because so few Americans felt like participating in anything celebratory or self-indulging.  "I can barely pull myself away from my television set let alone go Christmas shopping at a time like this," one mother confessed to a reporter.  "The recent events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy greatly hurt the expectations of area retailers," surmised Pennsylvania's Connellsville Daily Courier.

These ripples were felt at both state and national levels.  The Connellsville paper also recorded on December 6: "State fiscal officials have attributed a revenue deficit in November to the death of President Kennedy. . . . Officials said much of the [state economic] lag was caused by the slowing of business and government activity following Kennedy's death on November 22."  Sales taxes were $2.9 million below projections.  Cigarette taxes were $1.1 million below estimates.  However, liquor tax expectations were only $68,000 short--feasibly because citizens tried to drown out their sorrows of Kennedy's death with alcohol.

Holiday joy seemed improbable in 1963.
That Christmas season was a difficult one for Americans.  The hollowness of the time may be best represented by the Kennedy's unsent Christmas card of that year.  Meanwhile, Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher used the death of JFK not to reassure consumers but to promote civility.  He remarked, "Christmas 1963 marks a time of joy tempered by a note of sadness for all Americans. . . . Let each of us draw from our recent national tragedy a greater understanding, a greater compassion, a greater tolerance for our fellow man.  In this way we will achieve for our nation a new spirit of unity and a new spirit of brotherhood."  As each of you scramble to hunt for cheap, imported goods this Black Friday, it behooves us all to take into account Mayor Locher's words more than any commercial promoting store-wide discounts.


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