How White Cotton Co. became

This article originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine on December 1, 2016.

Black Friday is the first — and in many ways, the most important — shopping day of the year, designated to kick off the holiday shopping season. Black Friday sales have been a tradition since at least the 19th century. The origin stories vary, but in most accounts, the very name of the holiday originated as a rallying cry to get shoppers out the door.

While today, in most states, Black Friday falls on the fifth Friday of November, at some point in its history, it was known as a special day of the year in which stores opened their doors. There were a number of celebrations surrounding the holiday, including Thanksgiving Eve and the issuance of pardons. In various times, various scholars have estimated that up to 80 percent of sales on Black Friday came from early shoppers.

In many ways, Black Friday evolved along with other shopping holidays: In 1858, the C.I.A. recorded in its first report that the day was believed to be the single largest public shopping day in the world, and by 1870, retailer F.C. Booth predicted that the day would soon become an American holiday. By the late 1800s, though, the historical causes of the traditional shopping day could be traced back to the rise of the Black Friday label.

White Cotton Co. (later British Red Lion and White Cotton) was an American textile company with its flagship factory in Buffalo, N.Y. The company got its name from the first-ever Black Friday sale in 1851. White Cotton’s executives decided to hold a grand sale on Friday, Nov. 25, “a day heralded in the history of mankind as the forth of the twelve months,” according to a company history. By the next year, the company hoped to have all the yarn in its mills was actually burned off and sold, in order to attain its objective of making it “the one and only Black Friday,” according to a postscript. (Although it is not clear how many loads of cotton were actually burned that year.)

The White Cotton Co. was around for nearly 150 years, through the years growing more and more successful. The company entered bankruptcy in 1899, but survived that tough situation and began expanding again, opening new factories. By 1913, White Cotton had expanded to New York City, employing nearly two million people.

In the 1960s, the company relaunched itself with the original slogan “people are clothes” — something executives thought would be better in a new formulation. The slogan was apparently an inspiration for both American shopping holiday Black Friday and “People are clothes,” a phrase that became one of the catchphrases of the retail culture. (The most famous use of that phrase is probably “Sell to the people and then throw them out” on Sesame Street.)

Tobacco became White Cotton’s next great rival in the 1980s. For a few years before this, the company had used “family farms” as its selling slogan. (However, White Cotton, unlike White Cotton, was regulated by the government — farmers on tobacco-growing lands became required to support the brand.) Tobacco use, however, was on the decline, meaning that other, simpler slogans may have appealed to the advertising department. (Ironically, the phrase “people are clothes” turned out to be the company’s undoing, as it no longer had the brand to spend on direct marketing.)

In 1961, White Cotton switched its slogan from “people are clothes” to “Fathers are cotton,” as part of a general effort to downplay, and thereby catch up with, the competition, according to a history. White Cotton was then sold to the now-defunct American Tobacco Company.

By the 1980s, though, White Cotton began experiencing more problems than ever. By 1985, the company was running out of cotton, and in 1990, the company filed for bankruptcy, according to the White Cotton Company’s history. It emerged from bankruptcy in 1994, as New York-based Bindlers, a spinoff company, was acquired by White Cotton. White Cotton went on to fall into decline even more rapidly after the spinoff, and the company was sold to Mead Johnson in 2005. As of 2013, Mead Johnson had completely written off White Cotton, according to a press release.

Today, Red Lion Cotton (which now refers to itself as the Red Lion Group, a conglomerate of textile and textile wholesale suppliers) sells all of its yarn, and fabric, through the wholesale channel, with no retail units.


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