Memorial Day was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to mourn and honor the soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War. Following United States involvement in World War I and World War II, the holiday became the generalized day of remembrance we know today, honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
But the holiday has since evolved into something else too.
Today, the national moment is also commonly associated with blowout deals and discounts, particularly on mattresses — a phenomenon that might come across as somewhat strange at best and downright offensive at worst. How did it happen?
Check out our timeline below to track Memorial Day’s evolution from Civil War-era “Decoration Day” to modern retail extravaganza.
Related: Make a Personal Connection to Honor the Fallen This Memorial Day
The first formal, village-wide annual Memorial Day ceremony to commemorate fallen soldiers is held on May 5 in Waterloo, New York. The city considers itself “the birthplace of Memorial Day.”
General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic proclaims the day one of national commemoration, honoring the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. Following former Union General James Garfield’s speech at Arlington National Cemetery during the first national observance, some 5,000 attendees aided in the decoration of the more than 20,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.
At this point, the holiday is called “Decoration Day” — so named for that very tradition of visiting the cemetery to decorate graves with flowers, wreaths and flags.
New York state names the national moment an official legal holiday, and other states soon follow suit.
The celebratory tide begins to change swiftly; less than a decade after the holiday’s first observance, some are accused of lacking the appropriate respect for the fallen heroes’ military service. “The old pathos and solemnity of the act have vanished, too, except in very quiet country places,” the New York Tribune wrote in 1875.
Just a few years later, in 1878, the publication once again pointed out the shifting sentiment towards the federal holiday: “It would be idle to deny that as individual sorrow for the fallen fades away the day gradually loses significance. The holiday aspect remains; how much longer the political character of the observance will linger we dare not guess.”
Related: Want to Generate Buzz? Create Your Own Holiday.
The Grand Army of the Republic encourages people to call the holiday “Memorial Day” instead of “Decoration Day,” but the new title is slow to catch on, given the Memorial Day tradition it began with in 1868.
U.S. Congress passes a resolution declaring the day a holiday for all per diem government employees.
Radio stations take root in major cities, and companies waste no time using it for commercial purposes in the U.S.
Congress declares the day a national holiday, and “Memorial Day” becomes more commonplace — though the name won’t be officially adopted by the U.S. government until 1967.
Cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have functioning local television stations. Both national commercials with high production values and local, lower-budget advertisements enter the scene.
Congress signs into law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, permanently moving Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Labor Day to a Monday. The law establishes Columbus Day as a federal holiday as well, also to be permanently observed on a Monday.
Three years later, on January 1, 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act takes effect.
With a three-day weekend officially in place, Americans have some extra free time. Some might take the opportunity to travel and spend money. Others might opt to stick closer to home — and also spend money.
It seems that advertisers were quick to pick up on the trend that Memorial Day (and the other holidays signed into three-day-weekend law) had begun. After all, when people have free time and money to burn, what better way to draw them in than with enticing discounts and promotions?
Cyberspace provides marketers with a new frontier. As email enters the mainstream, and communication becomes more instant than ever before, advertisers are able to deftly target specific groups of potential buyers — bringing back a level of personalization that fell by the wayside in the era of mass media, but began to reemerge with the rise of cable television and channels that catered to certain audiences.
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Mid 2000s-present day
The proliferation of various social media sites and apps, beginning with MySpace in 2003, transforming with Facebook a year later, and ultimately evolving into the dominant players we have today, Instagram and TikTok among them, offers yet another opportunity for advertisers to use targeted ads, especially once influencers join the conversation.
So … what about those mattresses?
We’ve established that people are more likely to travel and shop — and therefore, spend — when they have a day off from work, but why does it seem like mattress sales are the focal point during this time of year?
Well, it turns out that it might be just that — the time of year.
Almost 40 million Americans move each year, and more than half of them will move between May and September. That means that once spring rolls around (and Memorial Day with it) roughly 24 million people are probably thinking about an impending move, which comes with all of the usual considerations: what to keep and what to get rid of.
For those adding a bedroom or simply wanting an upgrade, blowout Memorial Day mattress sales serve as a prime opportunity to snag a bargain on what can be a very high-cost item. It’s an important purchase too, as despite research that shows Americans spend an average of 36 years in bed over the course of a lifetime, three in four Americans think their bed could be more comfortable.
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And there you have it: from the American Civil War to the present day, how honoring fallen heroes morphed into the mattress-filled Memorial Day we know now.
Despite the intense commercialization of Memorial Day Weekend, it’s still a great opportunity to observe some of those earlier Memorial Day traditions — or any new ones that help serve that original purpose of remembrance.