The real, dark history of Black Friday

The retail bonanza known as Black Friday is now an integral part of many Thanksgiving celebrations, but this holiday tradition has darker roots than you might imagine.

THE COVID-19 pandemic represents a massive dark cloud hanging over the holidays this year. If you’re a shopaholic, however, the thrill of snatching Black Friday deals may offer some light relief. That is, until you find out why the day is called “Black Friday.”

Maybe you’re familiar with the wholesome origin story of Black Friday. It goes something like this: For years, tryptophan-happy shoppers would flood local shops and malls the day after Thanksgiving, and that surge in spending was enough to put retailers “in the black” for the year.

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Therefore, the Friday following Thanksgiving was dubbed “Black Friday,” and it became the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season.

Except that wasn’t always how the phrase was used. Before the retail industry put a tidy little spin on Black Friday, it had a much more sinister meaning. Here’s the real reason the term “Black Friday” exists.

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to post-Thanksgiving 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 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.

The real history 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 the Philadelphia 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.

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.

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