The History of the Black Friday Shopping Holiday

(Last Updated On: October 29, 2019)
History of Black Friday

Black Friday has become a prominent informal holiday that marks the beginning of America’s Christmas shopping season. Retailers take this opportunity to attract customers by offering irresistible discounts as part of their marketing strategy. And shoppers are ready to spend their hard-earned money on those wishlist items that are now heavily discounted, snatching up deals for their holiday shopping. 

Whether you love it or not, there is no denying the impact Black Friday has on retailers and consumers. Many feel an air of excitement waking up early in an attempt to get the best shopping deals they can.

But on the other hand, no matter how you feel about it, this shopping holiday is actually a pretty bizarre concept. How did this day even come to be? 

Here is a short history of Black Friday.

Why Is It Called Black Friday?

For a long time, the word “black” has been used to describe days upon which strange events or catastrophes have occurred. As such, there are many past days that have been described as “Black Friday”. One of the earliest such events came in 1869, when the US gold market crashed, causing a major financial crisis. This economic panic came to be called “Black Friday”.  

With that in mind, we can start to look at just how the term came to be applied to shopping. As with many words, there isn’t necessarily a direct source; it was more of a term that developed over time from a few different sources. 

Workers Calling in Sick

In November 1951 (and again in 1952), the Factory Management and Maintenance journal was perhaps the first publication to use the term “Black Friday” to refer to the day after Thanksgiving. But this usage had nothing to do with shopping. Instead, it referred to the practice of workers calling out sick the day after Thanksgiving so that they could have a 4-day weekend. So it was a “black” day because so many people were absent from work. 

Crowds and Traffic Congestion

Around this same time, however, the terms “Black Friday” and “Black Saturday” came to be used by police officers in places like Philadelphia and Rochester to describe the chaotic traffic and crowds that came along with the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Gradually, the term “Black Friday” in relation to the day after Thanksgiving became known in the northeastern United States, and would spread slowly from there.

Red and Black Profit Margins

However, it would not be until the early 1980s that the phrase became known nationally. By then, Black Friday had come to be synonymous with crowded stores, heavy traffic, and general mayhem. In an effort to shift the phrase away from these negative connotations, retailers began to suggest a new “origin” of the term.

Most merchants operate at a financial loss for the bulk of the year, with profits finally coming during the holiday season. Back in the day, accountants would use red ink to show negative amounts and black ink to show positive gains. In this alternate derivation, Black Friday then represents the time when retailers are no longer “in the red”. In other words, the black ink finally gets to come out.

We first see this theory presented in print in The Philadelphia Inquirer on November 28, 1981.

The History of Black Friday and Beyond

The day after Thanksgiving had been a prominent day for shopping even before the use of the term “Black Friday”. But once the phrase got national attention, marketing strategies around this unofficial holiday would only increase the chaos. 

Many retailers on Black Friday offer deals that are limited to just a certain quantity of customers. This leads many to wake up bright and early to take advantage of the significant savings opportunities. Of course, lots of people combined with limited supplies can lead to problems. On Black Friday, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of shoppers and employees being trampled, or people breaking out into physical fights over merchandise. 

Perhaps the term “Black Friday” really originated to describe the color of one’s bruises after a day of fighting for deals?

More recently, however, an effort has been made by many retailers to mitigate the crowds. Many stores have started their Black Friday sales on the evening of Thanksgiving (loosely coined Black Thursday), or even extend it to a week-long sale. And as online shopping is becoming more prominent, more and more brick-and-mortar stores are also offering exclusive online promotions on their websites to encourage even greater sales.

Of course, one could view this less as an attempt to control crowds, and more as a ploy to simply get more customers. Either way, we feel sorry for the poor employees that have to work throughout the holidays!


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 202 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.