Why Black Friday is Called Black Friday

Black Friday

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, with the hope that it

would boost sales for retailers and, thus, boost the economy.

However, when Roosevelt changed the official date of Thanksgiving to a week earlier in

1939, many people refused to change the date they held Thanksgiving that year and mockingly

called the official government set Thanksgiving holiday, “Franksgiving”. In fact, a full

22 states refused to go along with Roosevelt’s date, which continued for the next two years.

Texas, on the other hand, decided to take both holidays and held two Thanksgivings.

In 1941, in order to fix the multiple dates for Thanksgiving issue, congress passed a

law, and later amended it, that for the first time officially set the date for Thanksgiving

into U.S. law. The date they finally set, which Roosevelt ratified, was the fourth Thursday

in November, which would sometimes be the last and sometimes be the second to last.

In any event, 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. There are several suggested origins for this name. 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 and the massive amount of people out and about.

One of the earliest documented references of this was in December of 1961, where Denny

Griswold of Public Relations News stated: “in Philadelphia, it became customary for

officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday. Hardly

a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by… merchants with their Deputy

City Representative… He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert

Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.”

“Big Friday” never caught on, but over the next decade, more and more references

can be found in various newspaper archives of this particular Friday being called “Black

Friday” for this reason. In the 1980s, retailers, unhappy with the

negative connotations of what appears to be the real origin of the term, 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 previously listed theory before that time.

A lesser theory that is sometimes spread about is that this naming 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 in neither case had anything to

do with shopping or the Friday after Thanksgiving. While we’re on the topic of Black Friday

myths, it should be noted that 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. The real biggest shopping day of the year

is nearly always the Saturday before Christmas, except when Christmas falls on a weekend day,

in which case the biggest shopping day of the year is usually the Thursday or Friday

before Christmas. Thus, the procrastinators seem to outnumber the early birds.

Bonus Facts: • 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 and many more were injured.

• As mentioned, the term Black Friday itself was first used to describe a stock market

crisis on September 14, 1869. At the time, gold prices were almost solely controlled

by investors in the New York Stock Exchange. Specifically, James Fisk and Jay Gould headed

an investment group that sought to control the price of gold, at that time owning the

rights to nearly 50% of all gold circulated in the United States. The one flaw in their

plan was that the U.S. government occasionally released gold reserves for sale in order to

regulate the price of gold and keep paper money valuable. To get around this, the investment

group recruited President Grant’s brother-in-law to convince Grant to appoint Daniel Butterfield

as the assistant to the Treasurer; Butterfield had agreed that he would do his best to make

sure the government would not release any of their gold holdings and would tip this

investment group off when the government was planning on selling gold, so that the investors

could first drive up the price of gold and then sell large portions of their gold holding

for profit before the government release drove down prices. The problems started when this

group was too successful, driving gold prices up by nearly 15% in a single day at one point.

This had a consequence of rapidly decreasing the value of paper money. When Grant finally

realized what was happening, he ordered the federal government to sell $5 million in gold

to counteract this group’s efforts. Within minutes after this gold hit the market, the

price of gold plummeted resulting in an investor panic, which ultimately caused a huge stock

market drop, ruining many. Interestingly, because Fisk and Gould were tipped off the

day before this government release, they were able to sell off much of their gold holdings

to various groups. Fisk and Gould made a tidy profit while the groups they sold to were

ultimately ruined the next day when the government gold hit the market.