Q: I’m dreaming of a “white sale” so I can replace my threadbare linens. In the meantime, can you enlighten me about the history of the expression?
A: The phrase “white sale” showed up in the late 1800s in reference to a January or February sale of household linens, also known as “white goods,” at reduced prices.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Feb. 2, 1894, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“At 8 o’clock yesterday morning J. L. Hudson’s furnishing goods departments were packed with eager buyers, being attracted there by the announcement of a ‘White Sale.’ ”
However, the OED has an earlier citation for a similar usage from a July 3, 1878, ad in the Iowa State Reporter in Waterloo:
“Remember! The Linen and White Goods Sale at Glover & Arther’s on Tuesday, July 9, at 10 o’clock a.m.”
We’ve also found quite a few examples of the shorter phrase “white sale” used in the late 1880s and early ’90s in newspaper ads announcing sales of sewing fabrics or undergarments, though not household linens.
In Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle (2010), Michael J. Lisicky credits the American merchant John Wanamaker with coming up with the idea for a white sale:
“In January 1878, he introduced the first annual White Sale. This sale was an attempt to sell excess stock in bedding during a traditionally slow time of the year.”
Lisicky, the author of several histories of department stores, says Wanamaker “chose the name White Sale since all linens were exclusively sold in White.”
However, we haven’t been able to confirm that or any other 19th-century use of the term “white sale” by the Philadelphia department store.
In fact, the earliest example we’ve been able to find for a Wanamaker “white sale” refers to a sale in its store at Broadway and Ninth Street in Manhattan: “Plain Facts About the White Sale” (from the Jan. 3, 1900, New-York Tribune).
The earliest OED citation for “white goods” is from A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, an 1807 book by the English scientist Thomas Young:
“About one half [of imported cotton] is consumed in white goods, one fourth in fustians, and the remainder in hosiery, mixtures, and candle wicks.” (Fustian is a durable twilled fabric.)
The dictionary defines “white goods” as “household linen, traditionally white in colour, such as sheets and towels.” It says the usage is seen now only in references to the past.
We often call these household items “linens,” though they’re more likely to be made of cotton or a cotton blend. Technically, “linen” is cloth woven from flax, but for many centuries the word has been used loosely to mean either undergarments or household goods like sheets, towels, napkins, and tablecloths
Sometimes linens or muslins or other fabrics that were not bleached and retained their natural color were called “brown goods,” but that term was also used for fabrics that had been dyed brown or a brownish color.
Interestingly, both the terms “brown goods” and “white goods” were resurrected in the 20th century with more modern meanings.
In the 1940s “white goods” came to mean large household appliances that were traditionally white, like refrigerators and washing machines.
The first OED example is fromthe June 13, 1947, issue of the New York Times: “$50,000 worth of white goods like stoves and washers are available for immediate delivery.”
And later in the 20th century the term “brown goods” came to be used to mean electrical appliances like radios, TV’s and phonographs that were often housed in brown cases.
The first Oxford citation is from a March 1976 report by the London consumer organization Which?
“Electrical equipment … includes things like washing machines and fridges (what the trade calls white goods) as well as TVs and audio (which the trade calls brown goods).”