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What’s the Real History of Black Friday?

It makes sense that the term “Black Friday” might refer to the single day of the year when retail companies finally go “into the black” (i.e. make a profit). The day after Thanksgiving is, of course, when crowds of turkey-stuffed shoppers descend on stores all over the country to take advantage of the season’s biggest holiday bargains. But the real story behind Black Friday is a bit more complicated—and darker—than that.

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.

In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday’s roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.

The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. (In fact, stores traditionally see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.)

The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten. Since then, the one-day sales bonanza has morphed into a four-day event, and spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday. Stores started opening earlier and earlier on that Friday, and now the most dedicated shoppers can head out right after their Thanksgiving meal. According to a pre-holiday survey this year by the National Retail Federation, an estimated 135.8 million Americans definitely plan to shop over the Thanksgiving weekend (58.7 percent of those surveyed), though even more (183.8 million, or 79.6 percent) said they would or might take advantage of the online deals offered on Cyber Monday.

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What Is Black Friday – History of the Holiday Shopping Phenomenon :


In November, many bargain hunters’ thoughts turn to the day following Thanksgiving. On the fourth Friday of the month, shoppers across the United States take advantage of widespread bargains and scramble forBlack Friday doorbuster deals, deeply discounted products available in limited quantities.

Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year and the official kick-off to the Christmas shopping season.

So where did this tradition come from, and is Black Friday really that big of a deal?

History of Black Friday

Black Friday’s Origins

Many people believe that the parades featuring Santa Claus held on Thanksgiving first heralded the beginning of the holiday shopping season. Department stores like Macy’s in New York, the now-defunct Eaton’s in Toronto, and other department stores frequently sponsored the holiday parades throughout the 20th century. Sponsoring Christmas parades gave stores an opportunity to begin advertising holiday sales.

Over time, it became an unwritten rule that Christmas advertising didn’t start until after the parades. For decades, retailers adhered to the rule, waiting until the day after Thanksgiving to advertise holiday deals.

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official national holiday during the Civil War, establishing it as the final Thursday in November – a designation that lasted for 70 years. But in 1939, for the second time in six years, the last Thursday in November fell on the 30th. Distraught over a shorter Christmas shopping season, retailers approached President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked him to change the date.

Though retailers wanted a holiday shopping season that lasted longer than 24 days before Christmas, none wanted to break the tradition of waiting until after Thanksgiving to advertise their reduced holiday prices. FDR, trying to end the country’s depression by stimulating spending, agreed to the idea and changed the date of the holiday. On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law setting the fourth Thursday in November as the official date of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Today, many people continue to regard the day after Thanksgiving as the official start of the holiday shopping season.

Why Black Friday Is “Black”

Contrary to popular belief, Black Friday didn’t derive its name from the idea that the holiday shopping season moves retailers from being “in the red” (experiencing losses) to being “in the black” (showing profits).

Media reports from 1966 reveal that police officers in Philadelphia first referred to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” because of the increased traffic jams and large amounts of pedestrian traffic in the city’s shopping district. For Philadelphia police, bus drivers, cab drivers, and others who tried to control and navigate the shopping hordes, the day was bleak – and, therefore, “black.”

However, retailers didn’t like the negative connotations surrounding such an important shopping day. Alternative stories about Black Friday began to emerge in the 1980s. Today, shoppers believe that retailers’ balance sheets move into the black on the day after Thanksgiving, and accept the idea that Black Friday is a retail holiday.

Black Friday’s Popularity Growth

Interestingly, the day after Thanksgiving has only recently become the biggest shopping day of the year. Between 1993 and 2001, it ranked between fifth and tenth on the list of the busiest shopping days. In fact, for years, the busiest shopping day was usually the Saturday before Christmas.

But things changed in 2002. That was the year Black Friday took the lead, and it has remained the busiest shopping day of the year ever since, with the exception of 2004 when it was second. Experts speculate that shopping on the day after Thanksgiving has become more popular because many people have the day off, stores offer extended hours, and almost every store seems to have a sale on the day after Thanksgiving.

Black Friday Today

The Urgency of Black Friday

Black Friday is an ingrained part of our collective shopping culture, and as such, there is a great deal of hype surrounding limited quantity doorbusters, which can offer up to 80% off retail prices. Shoppers can only get these special deals at the very beginning of the sales, right when the doors open. Moreover, major retailers create a sense of urgency by offering special deals to draw the crowds into stores even after doorbusters have sold out.

Some of these additional methods that stores employ to create urgency include:

  • Advertising ridiculously low prices on certain items
  • Offering special sales for limited hours during the day
  • Limiting the number of items available for purchase at the special price
  • Offering additional loss leaders, merchandise priced lower than actual cost

Retailers design these methods to encourage consumers who hope to find once-in-a-lifetime deals to flock to the stores. The stores hope that shoppers will stick around and buy full-priced items in addition to pillaging their discounted merchandise.

Some stores open at midnight on Thanksgiving night, while others open between 2AM and 5AM. Black Friday camping has become popular as shoppers line up for doorbusters up to a day in advance of stores opening.

Lastly, with the advent of the Internet, stores have begun to release their flyers online as a way to further create excitement and urgency well in advance of Black Friday. Fortunately, these pre-releases of doorbuster and sale information has also allowed enthusiastic consumers to determine the best deals and carefully plan shopping routes before the big day arrives.

The Consequences of Black Friday

Unfortunately, Black Friday has also come to represent the consumer excesses of our society and addiction to consumer electronics. News reports on the day after Thanksgiving feature hordes of crazed shoppers, desperate for deals. While in the vast majority of stores volatile behavior is usually limited to shoving and rude comments, there have been more serious incidents reported, including trampling deaths.

In 2008, the first death attributed to Black Friday fanaticism was recorded at a Walmart in Valley Stream, New York. Stampeding shoppers trampled an employee to death. Consumers refused to stop their rush when store employees tried to help their coworker, ultimately contributing to the man’s demise. Shoppers also buffeted the police officers who arrived to help.

The incident illustrates how ugly ordinary people can become when frenzied by consumerism and materialism. Shoppers who do not exercise caution could find themselves in danger. Reports of fist fights, stabbings, and gun threats have all occurred at stores on the retail holiday. Safe shopping on Black Friday is important – be sure to exercise caution.

Final Word :

Some people enjoy the Black Friday experience. Getting up early or eschewing bedtime altogether to stand in line at a store to get a good bargain can be exciting. Plus, the savings can make standing in line and missing a few hours of shut-eye worthwhile. Many bargain hunters accomplish their Christmas shopping in one day and save a bundle.

These days, however, you have other shopping options to avoid the turmoil. Many retailers begin offering deals on Thanksgiving Day or earlier. Forget braving the cold and crowds; you can get spectacular shopping deals online without having to get dressed or stressed, especially on Cyber Monday. In addition to the reduced retail rates, you can often receive free shipping when you shop online during the holiday season.

Before you head to the malls on the day after Thanksgiving, consider your options. Will you really get a good deal? How much time do you want to spend in traffic, in line outside the store, and waiting for your turn at the check-out stand?

In addition, make sure to carefully consider whether you can find a better bargain online. This year, you may not have to leave home at all to get the best deals on Christmas gifts.

Do you participate in Black Friday shopping? What deals are you looking forward to?

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Black Friday – Originally Meant Something Much, Much Darker :

It’s totally understandable if you think the term “Black Friday” is a direct linguistic descendent of “in the black,” accounting jargon for turning a profit. After all, the day after Thanksgiving is now one of the biggest shopping days of the year, an annual delight to retailers hoping to give their bottom lines a nice little boost in the year’s final weeks.

But the truth is that Black Friday owes its name to the Philadelphia Police Department, which did not have profitability in mind. One thing to remember is that, long before the rest of us started calling it Black Friday, retailers hoped to start the holiday shopping season with a bang by offering “can’t miss” deals right after Thanksgiving. (Note: These days, “holiday shopping season” can begin way before Turkey Day.) People being people, they have long stormed stores, caused traffic jams and been generally terrible to one another in an effort not to miss these deals.

In the middle years of the twentieth century, the scene was often particularly bad in Philadelphia, where the annual Army-Navy football game was regularly played on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Lots of cars, lots of traffic, lots of chaos. Sound familiar?

So at some point in the 1950s or 1960s — some put the date exactly at 1966— the Philadelphia Police Department started to refer to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” with the unrealistic hope that people would find the whole shebang distasteful and opt out of the collective consumer madness. At a minimum, it was a derisive way to describe an unpleasant day in the life of a Philly cop.

“It was not a happy term.” retail scholar Michael Lisicky told CBS Philly in 2011. “The stores were just too crowded, the streets were crowded, the buses and the police were just on overcall and extra duty.”

The term took off in a big way, but not for the reasons the cops hoped. By the 1980s, the idea gained steam that “Black Friday” was named after retailers trying to hop into the black, according to The Telegraph.

Then, somewhere along the way, Corporate America joyfully co-opted the phrase for their own purposes. Behold, modern-day repurposing:

For at least a while, some remembered the cops’ reasoning. But by 1975, when a sales manager said it was “bus drivers and cab drivers” that call it Black Friday because of the traffic, it was clear the police were not getting credit where credit was due.

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Why Is Black Friday Called Black Friday?

Black Friday is the name given to the shopping day after Thanksgiving. It was originally called Black Friday because so many people went out to shop that it caused traffic accidents and sometimes even violence. The Philadelphia Police Department coined the phrase to describe the mayhem surrounding the congestion of pedestrian and auto traffic in the downtown area.

The name was first recorded in 1966 by Earl Apfelbaum, a dealer in rare stamps.

In his ad, he said, “‘Black Friday’ is the name that the Philadelphia Police Department gave to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment for them. ‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.” (Source: The Chicago Tribune, “Black Friday – Why and When?)

When Black Friday Became a Positive Name

Retailers did not appreciate the negative connotation associated with a black day of the week. They had a good point. For example, Black Monday was given to October 19, 1987. On that day, the Dow Jones Average fell 22%, the largest percentage drop on one day in stock market history. Here’s more on the Dow Closing History.

Another dark day, Black Thursday, occurred on October 24, 1929. It was the day that signaled the start of the Great Depression.

It was followed the next week by Black Tuesday. On that day, the stock market lost 11% despite attempts by major investors to support stock prices. That destroyed any confidence investors had in the stock market, which in those days was perceived tobe the economy. Many had invested their life savings and were entirely wiped out.

No wonder retailers wanted to make the name “Black Friday” mean something positive. And, to them, the Friday after Thanksgiving is a very profitable day. To compensate, they decided to follow the adage, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

They used the name to reflect their success. Accountants use black to signify profit when recording each day’s book entries. Red is used to mean loss. Therefore, Black Friday means profitable Friday to retailing and to the economy.

Worst Black Friday Violence

Black Friday crowds hunting bargains still give the police headaches. In 2013, police shot a Chicago Kohl’s shoplifter as he fled in his car. He was dragging an officer who was halfway into the vehicle.

The most violence seems to occur at Wal-Mart, leading to the Twitter hashtag each year #Walmart fights. In 2012, two people were shot outside of a Wal-Mart in Tallahassee Florida. They were fighting over a parking space.

Walmart’s consumer electronics department seems to be the most dangerous place. In 2011, a woman pepper-sprayed a crowd at a Wal-Mart in Los Angeles.

She was trying to get a Wii for 60% off. The year before, crowds at a Sacramento Walmart forced the store to evacuate when they started pushing and shoving to get deals on consumer electronics at 5:30 am.

On Black Friday 2009, another California Wal-Mart, this time in Rancho Cucamonga, needed police protection from unruly crowds — again, in the early-morning hours in the consumer electronics department. The store was briefly closed a few hours after another store in nearby Upland was closed.

The worst Black Friday occurred in 2008 when a man was trampled to death. Despite being 6’5″ and 270 pounds, temporary worker Jdimytai Damour died of asphyxiation when crowds stampeded into another Wal-Mart (this time in New York). At least 2,000 people broke down the doors, trapping Damour in a vestibule where he suffocated. Eleven other shoppers were also injured, including a pregnant woman. It seems the police have a right to call Black Friday by a negative name.

More on Black Friday

  • What Is the History of Black Friday?
  • Get the Best Black Friday Deals
  • You Don’t Want to Miss Cyber Monday
  • Green Monday Sales

More on Black Friday What Is the History of Black Friday? Get the Best Black Friday Deals You Don't Want to Miss Cyber Monday Green Monday Sales


How the Black Friday Tradition Got Started

While it wasn’t called “Black Friday” until the 1960s, and then not popularly called such until the last two decades, retailers have been trying to push people to shop the Friday after Thanksgiving since the late 19th /early 20th century.  Around this time, it was very popular for various department stores, such as Macy’s and Eaton’s, to sponsor parades that would occur the day after Thanksgiving.  These parades would typically be a major part of Christmas advertising campaigns by these stores.  This, in turn, would ultimately result in a lot of people going shopping after the parades were over. Over time, this melded into a commonly accepted unwritten rule among most major department stores to hold off on their major Christmas advertising pushes until after Thanksgiving; specifically, to hold off until after these parades were over.

By the 1930s, the Friday after Thanksgiving had become the official start of the Christmas shopping season among the vast majority of retailers out there. However, this tradition ultimately resulted in retailers being unhappy with the length of the Christmas shopping season on Novembers where the last Thursday was the fifth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving at that time was always on the last Thursday of November). Thus, with the strong encouragement of lobbyists for various retailers, President Roosevelt, in 1939, decided to change the official date of Thanksgiving to be on the second to last Thursday in November, in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season as much as possible. This lasted two years before Congress was forced to stepped in, due to the controversy Roosevelt’s switch had caused. Their solution was a compromise between the two camps, setting Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November.


How the Friday After Thanksgiving Came to Be Known as “Black Friday”

The term “Black Friday” wasn’t coined to describe the day after Thanksgiving until the mid 1960s.  Even then, it wasn’t a popular term nationally until around the last twenty years.

In the 1980s, retailers, unhappy with the negative connotations of what appears to be the real origin of the term (see below), decided to start pushing that the actual origin was that most retailers operated in a financial loss for most of the year and Black Friday was named such because it was the day of the year when the retailers would finally see a profit, moving out of the red and into the black. This of course, simply isn’t true.  While there are some retailers that depend on the Christmas season’s profits to make a profit for the year, most retailers see profits every quarter based on the quarterly SEC filings of those major retailers.  There are also no references to this potential origin predating around the 1980s and there are numerous references to the following theory of the origin of the term “Black Friday” before that time.

The most likely origin, which is reasonably well documented, is from Philadelphia police officers, bus drivers, and taxi cab drivers who dreaded the day after Thanksgiving due to the traffic problems from the massive amount of people out and about.The earliest documented reference to this was in January 1966, written by Bonnie Taylor-Black of the American Dialect Society: “‘Black Friday’ is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.”  Over the next decade, more and more references can be found in various newspaper archives, primarily in the New England area, of this particular Friday being called “Black Friday” for this reason.

Black Friday Facts:

  • Nearly 135 million people go out to shop on Black Friday every year.
  • In 2010: 212million shoppers spent $39billion for an average spending amount of $365.34
  • In 2008, Jdimytai Damour, a Long Island Walmart temporary employee was trampled to death on Black Friday when shoppers at Green Acres Shopping Center, impatient with waiting for the store to open, pushed against the doors to try to get them to open.  Workers pushed back to try to keep the doors from breaking, but ultimately the masses won out and over 2000 people streamed in, trampling Damour.  The paramedics who arrived and tried to save Damour were also trampled and seriously injured by shoppers who apparently didn’t care that there was a dying man lying at the entrance of the store with paramedics trying to resuscitate him.  All total, five shoppers had to be hospitalized at that one location.
  • executives came up with the bright idea for “Cyber Monday”, even though the Monday after Thanksgiving historically never previously saw any up-tick in online sales over any other day around that time, with online sales seeing their actual peak days between December 5th and December 15th.  This campaign has seen marginal success, but not enough for most online retailers to latch on to the idea.  Instead, there has been a big push lately for “Cyber Black Friday”, encouraging people to avoid the masses and stay home and shop online.  This campaign has been much more successful than Cyber Monday, with sales reaching as high as a half a billion dollars in 2009, which is over double what it was in 2008.

Black Friday Myths:

Myth: The Naming of Black Friday Came From a Stock Market Crash:

A theory that is sometimes spread about how “Black Friday” got its name, came from the stock market crash in late 1929 which kicked off the Great Depression.  In fact though, that event happened on a Tuesday, not a Friday.  The actual “Black Friday” stock market scare happened in 1869, was in September, and had to do with gold prices. So neither stock market crash had anything to do with shopping or the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Myth: Black Friday is the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year:

Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year. In fact, it’s typically not even in the top five, though has cracked the ranks a few times in recent years. The real biggest shopping day of the year is nearly always the Saturday before Christmas, excepting a few occasions where it typically then ends up being the Thursday or Friday before Christmas, when Christmas falls on a weekend day.  Thus, the procrastinators seem to outnumber the early birds in this respect. Besides people’s naturally tendency to procrastinate, this should not be a surprise as most people are simply trying to get specific great deals on Black Friday and aren’t tending to look to get all their Christmas shopping done in one day.  So while there might be a lot of people in the stores, most of them aren’t coming home with a lot of items, according to consumer reports.  On the other hand, the last Saturday before Christmas is the last convenient time for many shoppers to get their shopping done.

*While it may not be the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday still rakes in an amazing amount of money, typically bringing in $15-$20 billion worth of revenue each year for the last three years in the United States.

Myth: Cyber Monday is the Biggest Online Shopping Day of the Year:

Another myth online retailers would love for people to start believing is that the Monday following Black Friday, which is beginning to be known as “Cyber Monday”, is the busiest online shopping day of the year.  In fact, Cyber Monday historically doesn’t even make the top ten and before the term was coined and promoted, it wasn’t even typically in the top 30.  Most of the actual biggest online shopping days of the year tend to fall between December 5th and December 15th.  As someone who once owned a reasonably successful online store, I can attest to the fact that the online shopping days between around December 5th-ish to about the 20th, for my store, would see normal sales jump about fifteen times the normal volume per day on average, during that span; then typically tailing off a bit, but staying well above average until around January 5th, at which point sales tend to see their worst rates of the year until around the end of January or early February when things would begin to get back to normal.  The last two Cyber Monday’s I owned that store, I actually saw below average sale rates on that day.

Expand for References and more Information

  • Black Friday Myths
  • History of Black Friday
  • Black Friday History and Highlights
  • How Big is Black Friday for Retailers
  • Black Friday Shopping Tips

Black Friday - a day that, for most British shoppers, only started in the last couple of years and is symbolised by fights over flat-screen TVs. First introduced to the UK by Amazon, now a range of retailers such as Tesco, Argos and John Lewis discount prices. The term first began in the US, where Black Friday follows Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. There are plenty of rumours circulating online about how the day of sales first got its name - but which one is true?

Black Friday rumours and the truth about how it got its name :

Black Friday – a day that, for most British shoppers, only started in the last couple of years and is symbolised by fights over flat-screen TVs.

First introduced to the UK by Amazon, now a range of retailers such as Tesco, Argos and John Lewis discount prices.

The term first began in the US, where Black Friday follows Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.

There are plenty of rumours circulating online about how the day of sales first got its name – but which one is true?

Black Friday - a day that, for most British shoppers, only started in the last couple of years and is symbolised by fights over flat-screen TVs. First introduced to the UK by Amazon, now a range of retailers such as Tesco, Argos and John Lewis discount prices. The term first began in the US, where Black Friday follows Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. There are plenty of rumours circulating online about how the day of sales first got its name - but which one is true?

Black Friday 2016 Ads and Best Black Friday Deals