Article related image

A Brief History of Black Friday

As Thanksgiving approaches, so does another yearly American ritual: the shopping extravaganza that takes place on the day after Thanksgiving, aka "Black Friday." Just about any savvy shopper is familiar with the deals and doorbusters offered on this day — but they may not be aware of how Black Friday got its name. Contrary to common belief, the term wasn't originally coined to describe the day when stores made so much money their balance sheets changed from “red” losses into “black” gains. Instead, Black Friday had a different meaning at first and only became linked to post-Thanksgiving shopping by chance.

The Original Meaning of “Black Friday”

24th September 1869: Panic on 'Black Friday' in the New York Gold Room.
Credit: Three Lions via Getty Images

"Black Friday" initially had a negative connotation. In 1869, a pair of speculators attempted to manipulate the U.S. gold market. Their scheme led to a stock market crash on Friday, September 24, a day that became known as "Black Friday."

The practice of assigning "black" days to market downturns didn't end in the 19th century. The stock market crash on October 28, 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, was dubbed "Black Tuesday,” and another cataclysmic crash that happened on October 19, 1987, was called "Black Monday."

Post-Thanksgiving Shopping Before “Black Friday”

Franklin D. Roosevelt slicing turkey on Thanksgiving with his wife sitting next to him.
Credit: Bettmann/ Corbis via Getty Images

Even when “Black Friday” had a different definition, the period after Thanksgiving was associated with holiday shopping. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was first held on November 27, 1924. When Santa Claus showed up at the end, it was a not-so-subtle cue to embark on the search for Christmas presents. The tradition of Santa closing out the parade has occurred every year since.

In 1939, Thanksgiving originally fell on the final day of November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up one week to the fourth Thursday of the month at the request of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, who wanted to avoid a late Thanksgiving that would leave less time for Christmas shopping after the holiday.

However, Roosevelt didn't announce the newly scheduled date for Thanksgiving until October, which was too late for many to alter their plans. The confusion resulted in some jeering about "Franksgiving" get-togethers. The change lingered for a few years until Congress officially decided in 1941 that Thanksgiving would take place on the fourth Thursday in November.

How “Black Friday” Got a New Meaning

Downtown Philadelphia with traffic on interstate I-76 on a sunny day.
Credit: benedek/ iStock

The city of Philadelphia deserves credit for establishing a link between post-Thanksgiving outings and the name "Black Friday." In the 1950s and '60s, the city was consistently flooded with people who wanted to shop on the day after Thanksgiving before attending the annual Army-Navy football game on Saturday. Police officers were required to work extra hours to deal with everything from terrible traffic to an uptick in shoplifters. The police vented their frustrations by designating the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday."

Some Philadelphia stores didn't appreciate having some of their biggest sales days tied to a term with unhappy associations. In 1961, they tried to promote the more positive "Big Friday" to the public. It's clear this phrase didn't take off as hoped.

Since adopting a new term didn't work, the mythos surrounding Black Friday shifted instead. As more people began referring to “Black Friday” in the 1980s, retailers spread the word that the phrase meant stores had attained positive balance sheets — going from being in the red into the black — following a successful day of sales.

Black Friday Continues to Evolve

Close up of a woman walking down a street with shopping bags.
Credit: agrobacter/ iStock

By the 1990s, the term “Black Friday” denoted shopping on the day after Thanksgiving across the United States. Black Friday has grown to become the busiest U.S. shopping day of the year and the “holiday” continues to evolve.

In recent years, many retailers have expanded from Black Friday to offer sales all month in "Black November.” Stores have also changed their Black Friday hours to begin on Thanksgiving night instead of early the following morning, which hasn’t deterred shoppers from camping outside their favorite stores to scoop up the best deals as soon as doors open.

Black Friday has also become an international phenomenon: Canada, the United Kingdom, and several other countries have started to have Black Friday sales, even though they don't observe American Thanksgiving.

Of course, technology has also played a huge role in how consumers approach Black Friday. Many online retailers now offer their own sales and deals throughout November, and in 2005, the National Retail Federation coined the term “Cyber Monday” as the internet’s version of Black Friday. Held on the Monday after Thanksgiving, shoppers flock to their computers for the best cyber deals of the year. In 2020, Americans spent more than $9 billion on Cyber Monday, proving that another shopping “holiday” is here to stay.