How (seriously, how!!) did the day after Thanksgiving, a day of (literally) thanks and giving, become “Black Friday”–the biggest shopping day of the year? Nothing could be more ironic. How did it all begin, and where did that ominous name come from?
The First Black Friday
To begin, the first Black Friday obviously didn’t take place on the Friday after the first Thanksgiving feast. I’m sure the pilgrims’ thankfulness continued through the weekend.
Continuing on, you might think that the term “Black Friday” was derived from the phrase “in the black” (accounting lingo for “turning a profit”). This popular theory isn’t quite right. The retail holiday originally got its name from the volume of day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers in the mid-twentieth century causing traffic accidents and violence in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Police Department was the first to refer to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday.”
To clarify, the days following Thanksgiving were popular shopping days long before the retail holiday received its name. In the 50s, people began faking a sick day every Friday after Thanksgiving to give themselves a four-day weekend. Since stores were open, those “sick at home” were able to get a headstart on their holiday shopping. Playing hooky worked. Eventually, businesses made the Friday after Thanksgiving a paid holiday. Now, that’s something to be thankful for.
What “Black Friday” Really Means
It’s the mid-1960s in Philadelphia. Today is the day after Thanksgiving. You let your office know you’re sick, and you’re off to the mall. The annual Army-Navy football game is this weekend, and you completely forgot. It takes you hours to get to the mall. The game, the expected holiday traffic, and you and your 50 coworkers obstructing the mall entrance, cause lots of confusion and chaos. In response, the Philadelphia Police Department begin calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday,” with the laughable optimism that people like you might find the whole ordeal offensive and decide not to participate in the collective consumer madness.
Basically, the holiday’s name originates as the reflection of a miserable November day to be a Philly cop. This is how “Black Friday” finally gets its name.
Keep in mind that this seemingly cryptic term is being tossed around a mere 40 years after the “Black Thursday” that marked the beginning of the Great Depression–and the stock market crash a week later known as “Black Tuesday.” As time progresses, journalists use the term “Black Monday” to describe October 19, 1987–another highly significant stock market crash. As the term “Black Friday” begins it’s rise to popularity, retailers try changing the stigma.
Based on the account above, you can see why retailers worked so hard to change the negative connotation attached to “Black Friday.” In the 60s, Philadelphia even tried to rebrand the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy, labeling the two days after the holiday “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday.” Of course, these names didn’t stick, but that didn’t stop retailers from continuing to look for ways to positively brand and promote the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
For a peek into past holiday marketing, check out what Black Friday looked like in 1996.
Black Friday Today
This brings us back to the idea that “Black Friday” was derived from the phrase “in the black.” Accountants use black ink to signify profit when recording each day’s book entries. Red is used to indicate loss. Although this may not be where the title originated, it is definitely how retailers and economists might describe the retail holiday today.
Check out the Black Friday deals happening this week. Things sure have changed since ‘96.
Over the last 70 years, the violence associated with the early Black Fridays has only gotten worse. The New York Daily News has called it “Black-eye Friday.” Since 2018, post-Thanksgiving violence has resulted in 12 deaths and 117 injuries.
Interestingly, the states with the most violence on the Friday after Thanksgiving are Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama. Alternatively, the safest places for shopping post-Thanksgiving deals are Vermont, Oregon, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Philadelphia definitely turned things around.
Finally, be safe this Friday. Don’t forget to be thankful…if not for anything else, at least for the awesome deals you’re going to risk your life for! May the odds be ever in your favor.
-Written by Lily Tillman