Black Friday: The Untold Story of How It All Began

Black Friday: The Untold Story of How It All Began

October 27, 2016 | American History

Say you were to eat a huge meal, perhaps to the point of almost feeling sick after. What sounds like a more appealing follow-up activity: sleeping or waking up at the crack of dawn, standing outside in subzero temperatures in a long line, then shopping amongst massive throngs of rude and unusually abrasive people? It seems like the obvious answer would be the former, yet every year, there's one "special" day where the answer for many, is the latter. That's right, Black Friday. It's probably unlikely that while one is dodging through the aisles like a character in the Hunger Games to get their hands on the newest electronic gadget at a 50 percent discount, that they are thinking about the history of this strange quasi-holiday. However, the origin of Black Friday and the myths surrounding it are rather interesting, as there seems to be common insidious thread that has lasted until this day.

The Origin of the Name: Black Friday

The original use of the term Black Friday was coined way back in 1869, and actually had nothing to do with holiday presents. Instead, it marked the date of a U.S. financial crisis, in which the gold market crashed thanks to the workings of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who attempted to monopolize the market by buying as much gold as possible in hope of driving the prices sky-high. It resulted in an economic catastrophe; and although the term refers to a day, the catastrophic mess took years to clean up.

Other stories have evolved throughout history that take credit for the name. One version claims that the term goes back to the early 1800's, and that on the day after Thanksgiving plantation owners could purchase slaves at a discount. Although this myth has been dispelled, it has certainly added to the controversy of the holiday and has been the motivating reason for some to boycott it.

In perhaps an attempt to shed a more positive light on the holiday, many people, especially those in the world of retail profiteering, attribute the holiday's name to simple retail lingo. Retail companies used to record profits by marking a loss of profit in red and making of profit in black. It is actually very rare that a retail store goes "in black," however, many accountants took note that on the day after Thanksgiving, when many items were being sold at discount, profit occurred. This today is the officially sanctioned story of Black Friday, although it is not the correct one.

So what is the actual retail inspired reason for the name? Interestingly, the term wasn't invented by the retail industry, but rather, by police officers in Philadelphia. It still referred to the day after Thanksgiving, however, the term was sort of a slang code amongst the cop scene to describe the absolute chaos that ensued when droves upon droves of tourists and shoppers would flock to the city for the highly anticipated annual Army-Navy football game that took place the following Saturday. It took awhile for the term to spread and catch on, but finally in late 1980s, the term had evolved into something more positive thanks to retailers' persistent marketing campaigns.

Black Friday Gets a Bad Reputation

So, although the true story has little to do with clothing and discounted TVs, the image of unruly masses of people seems all too relatable for many. In fact, there are actually cases in which some unruly Black Friday shoppers have turned violent. For example, in 2014, there was a Black Friday brawl at a Kohl's that led to three arrests. In 2012, two people were shot at a Tallahassee Walmart, allegedly over a parking space. There is actually a website, blackfridaydeathcount.com, that lists all injuries and deaths associated with Black Friday in chronological order.

Some Retailers Opting Out of Black Friday Sales

It seems that the positivity cord that struck in the late 80's didm't last long, as soon the holiday has evolved into being associated with fierce competition between retailers and shoppers alike. Stores are opening earlier and earlier and advertising the best deals in order to best the competition. (Note the word "advertised," as some stores actually have their best deals on other big shopping holidays like labor day.) And although the day has no record of being any deadlier or more dangerous than any other, the negative associations are still prevalent.

So prevalent, in fact, that some big retail chains, such as Nordstrom, Costco, and Home Depot, have decided to take a stand and lose their stores on Thanksgiving in order to bring back the weekend's focus on spending leisurely time with family and friends.