Editor's note: This story originally appeared Nov. 18, 2012.
We celebrate Thanksgiving this week thanks to Fred Lazarus Jr., head of Federated Department Stores, who lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to change the date to lengthen the Christmas shopping season.
The Lazarus family was noted for retail innovations. His grandfather, Simon Lazarus, started the clothing store in Columbus in 1851. They pioneered retail practices of “one low price” with no haggling, and grouping merchandise by size instead of price.
After Fred Lazarus Jr. took over the F. & R. Lazarus Co., he acquired Shillito’s of Cincinnati in 1928. The next year, he formed Federated Department Stores, serving as president, and in 1945 moved its headquarters to Cincinnati.
In 1939, in the midst of the Depression, Lazarus looked ahead at the calendar and noticed Thanksgiving would fall on Nov. 30 that year, leaving only 24 shopping days until Christmas.
The enterprising retailer enlisted George Sheridan, director of the Ohio State Council of Retail Merchants, to work out the pros and cons of moving the holiday up a week.
Lazarus asked Enquirer publisher William F. Wiley to share the expenses of sending Sheridan to Washington in exchange for an exclusive story. Roosevelt was convinced, but forgot The Enquirer’s scoop.
Thanksgiving was the only holiday not set by federal law. The date had been announced by presidential proclamation since George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, “a Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer” for the new nation.
A nation divided
Later celebrations were irregular, and varied by state. In 1863, to create unity at a time of discord during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln set Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.
That tradition lasted 75 years, until Roosevelt’s 1939 proclamation moved Thanksgiving one week earlier. The reason, he claimed, was so holidays would be more evenly spaced out, with no mention of the retailer influence.
Not everyone was happy. Complaints poured in from small retailers. Calendars had already been printed. The Thanksgiving football game was on the wrong day. Sixteen states refused to change, and for the next two holidays the nation split, celebrating two Thanksgivings.
Finally, in 1941, Congress stepped in and set the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, so it would never be later than Nov. 28, giving plenty of time for retailers to boost their Christmas sales.