Presidents Day car sales: Why's that a thing, and how did we get a Presidents Day anyway?

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History will note that George Washington drives a Dodge Challenger, even though they’re built in Canada. (Full Dodge commercial below)  …


Presidents Day has rightfully been called “our weirdest federal holiday.” This article began as a fun little bit about the popularity of car sales on the third Monday of every February. It almost immediately turned into two nights of Internet searches trying to figure out: What’s going on with this holiday? And why is Presidents Day synonymous with Presidents Day car sales?

Short answer: If you’re shopping for a car, you’re in luck. There are deals to be had. You can start here at Autoblog’s car-buying hub. And be sure to check our list of current rebates and other incentives.

As for the background of it all, here’s how we wound up using stacks of Washingtons, Lincolns, Jacksons and Grants (and some Benjamins) to buy cars on Presidents Day:

The origin

This all started as an informal celebration of George Washington’s birthday on February 22 — except Washington was born on February 11, 1732, because the then-British colonies used Britain’s Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar popular among Catholic nations. Britain and its possessions adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, retroactively converting Julian dates before 1752.

The celebrations

The celebrations began even before Washington died. The website of Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, wrote, “As early as 1779 the birthday was a cause for public celebration in Milton, Massachusetts.” The winning general of record in the Revolutionary War wouldn’t pass away until December of that year. And remember Massachusetts. It’s going to come up again, soon, and repeatedly.

The beginnings of a holiday

And here’s Massachusetts right now, right now: In 1856, it became the first state to declare Washington’s birthday a state holiday. A year into the U.S. Civil War, the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth on February 22, 1862, the Confederate States of America made their constitution official. The same day, the Union government in Washington, D.C., gathered to read Washington’s farewell address to the nation. After the war, with renewed zeal in the Founding Fathers and nationhood, a U.S. senator from Arkansas proposed making Washington’s birthday a federal holiday for workers in Washington, D.C. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the measure into law in 1879 but only for workers in D.C., with Congress expanding the holiday for federal workers nationwide in 1885.

Blame bicycles

Guess what state we’re going back to? Boston’s credited with starting the sales crazes around Washington’s birthday — not with cars, but with bicycles, in the 1890s. As a story in The Atlantic called “When Presidents Day Was Bicycle Day” explains, the late 19th-century bicycle craze encouraged manufacturers to debut their new models on February 22 with spring weather not far away, in conjunction with bicycle races run in the snow. A headline in the Boston Globe on February 23, 1895, read, “GRAND OPENING.: Boston Bicycle Dealers Keep Open House. Crowds Visit the Stores From Morning Till Night. Managers Explain Working of Their Wheels. Some Sales are Made Which Were a Surprise. Trade This Season Promises to Beat All Records.” Which says quite a bit about bicycles and newspaper headlines of the time.


Cue the cars

Sticking with Boston, bicycle manufacturers evolved into motorcycle manufacturers and halfway retained their fondness for Washington’s birthday. As the motorcar became more popular, Boston credits itself with using cars to renew the faded February madness. A 2015 Boston Globe article proposes that Alvin Fuller hosted his first big public bash on Washington’s birthday for his Packard dealership in 1917 — having opened the dealership seven years before on the same day, and this being an idea resurrected from when Fuller sold bicycles in the late 1890s. We’re told the event took off, helping to make Fuller “one of the richest men in America,” his 1958 obituary also in the Globe giving him “sole credit for having ‘inaugurated the Washington’s Birthday display of new autos.'”

For a competing narrative (from the same city!), spoke to the chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association in 2010, Paul Taylor. He said he’d never heard of Fuller. Speaking of holiday car sales, he explains, “There are genuine economic reasons why the holiday period has become a strong car selling season. It’s not symbolism, in particular, even though you’ll see George Washington’s profile in a lot of ads,” the outlet explaining “the day falls at the right time of the year for car dealers to launch their new spring lines,” and potential customers have little else to do. On a side note, spring lines used to be such a big deal that Chicago hosted its auto show twice a year, once in late winter or spring, again in the fall.

Attempting to explain the lure of Presidents Day, wrote, “Taylor couldn’t say when car sales across the country got pegged to Presidents Day, but he gathered it happened not long after the holiday was fixed to the third Monday of the month in 1971. … Imports changed the market soon after that, so patriotic themes were probably fairly appealing to dealers of domestic-made cars.”

Virginia didn’t cotton to Lincoln

It didn’t become Presidents Day until the 1970s. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, moving federal holidays to Mondays to increase the number of long weekends and reduce absenteeism around midweek holidays. The bill doubled the day’s honorees by including Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12. The bill also chose the third Monday of February as Presidents Day, as that day would almost always fall between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays. The third Monday comes February 22 only every five, six, or 11 years. Virginia senators had opposed renaming the holiday Presidents Day, so the Monday Holiday bill refers to Washington’s birthday. But marketers took advantage of public confusion caused by the added presidential honoree and the date change, calling the day Presidents Day in sales materials. That stuck.

Presidents Day is one of 11 annual federal holidays, with another being Inauguration Day every four years. The third federal holiday of the year falls on February 19 this year, and is always the first to open up a new can of holiday sales (New Year’s sales form the caboose on the previous year’s discount train). Anyone in the market for anything can expect at least two weeks of mailers, e-mails and autoplay videos full of large print and cartoonish graphics.

You don’t have to wait for Presidents Day to find great car sales. They start in anticipation of the holiday, Cars Direct keeps a running tally, or you can type the holiday and “car sales” into a search engine, and local dealers will pop up in the results ready with special offers. A bonus: No matter the week, Monday is said to be the best day of the week to buy a car.

The punctuation

Even though the evolution from Washington’s birthday should have turned the day into “Presidents’ Day” — plural possessive — you can spell it just about any way you want and call just about anything you want. Wikipedia shows 14 variations for the name depending on the state. The Associated Press Stylebook says no apostrophe, but, the National Constitution Center wrote, “Much to the chagrin of copy editors, there is nothing close to national consensus on the pseudo-holiday’s name.” And this only covers the states that celebrate the holiday, which not all do.

No matter what you call it, how you write it, or if you celebrate it, may the bargains be with you.

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