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 phrase “Black Friday” was initially used to refer to a financial catastrophe, notably the fall of the United States gold market on September 24, 1869, rather than post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping. Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, two famously cutthroat Wall Street businessmen, teamed together to acquire as much gold as they could, aiming to inflate the price and sell it for astronomical profits. The plot ultimately came to light on that September Friday, throwing the stock market into freefall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street billionaires to farmers.
The most accepted explanation for the Thanksgiving shopping ritual of Black Friday is that it is linked to merchants. According to the narrative, after a year of running at a loss (“in the red”), retailers would allegedly make a profit (“got into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving because holiday consumers spent so much money on reduced items. Though it’s true that retailers used to report losses in red and revenues in the black when accounting, this version of Black Friday’s beginnings is the officially sanctioned—but incorrect—story behind the practice.
From Financial Crash to Shopping Madness: A Visual History of Black Friday
Another myth has recently appeared, saying that in the 1800s, Southern plantation owners could acquire enslaved people at a bargain on the day following Thanksgiving. Though this interpretation of Black Friday’s origins has prompted some to call for a boycott of the shopping holiday, it is unfounded.
However, the true history of Black Friday is not as rosy as retailers would have you think. Back in the 1950s, police in Philadelphia coined the phrase to characterize the mayhem that erupted the day after Thanksgiving, when crowds of suburban shoppers and visitors descended on the city in anticipation of the annual Army-Navy football game. Philly officers would not only be unable to take the day off but they would also be required to work extra-long shifts in order to handle the increased crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the chaos in businesses to steal products, making law enforcement’s job even more difficult.
By 1961, “Black Friday” had become so popular in Philadelphia that merchants and supporters sought unsuccessfully to modify the name to “Big Friday” to avoid the negative overtones. However, the name didn’t catch on in the rest of the country until much later, and it wasn’t widely used until 1985. Retailers, however, discovered a method to redefine Black Friday in the late 1980s, turning it into something that reflected positively on them and their consumers, rather than badly. As a result, the holiday’s “red to black” theme was born, as was the belief that the day following Thanksgiving was the day when America’s retailers finally made a profit.
The Black Friday myth caught on, and the term’s nefarious origins in Philadelphia were quickly forgotten. Since then, the one-day shopping extravaganza has grown into a four-day affair, with new “retail holidays” like Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday spawning. On Black Friday, stores began opening earlier and earlier, until the most determined consumers could leave directly after their Thanksgiving lunch.
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