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.