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Black Friday History: The Dark True Story Behind The Name

Contrary to popular belief, it's not the day retailers are "in the black."

Maybe you’re familiar with the wholesome origin story of Black Friday. It goes something like this: For years, tryptophan-happy shoppers would flood local shops and malls the day after Thanksgiving, and that surge in spending was enough to put retailers “in the black” for the year. Therefore, the Friday following Thanksgiving was dubbed “Black Friday,” and it became the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season.

Except that wasn’t always how the phrase was used. Before the retail industry put a tidy little spin on Black Friday, it had a much more sinister meaning. Here’s the real reason the term “Black Friday” exists.

The Origin Of Black Friday

When a day is preceded by “black,” that’s usually an indication that it was pretty bad day (hello, Black Monday). Black Friday had a similar connotation.

The very earliest use of the phrase Black Friday dates to 1869 and had nothing to do with Christmas shopping. It was the day plummeting gold prices caused a market crash, the effects of which were felt by the U.S. economy for years.

The first mentions of Black Friday as we know it are said to have occurred around the 1950s or ’60s in Philadelphia, coined by traffic police who dreaded the day.

“The Philadelphia Police Department used the term to describe the traffic jams and intense crowding of the downtown retail stores,” said David Zyla, an Emmy-winning stylist and author of “How to Win at Shopping.” He noted that one of the first uses of the term in print appeared in an ad in a 1966 issue of The American Philatelist, a magazine for stamp collectors.

An archived excerpt of this ad appears in a thread on The Linguist List, an online forum operated by the Indiana University Department of Linguistics:

“Black Friday” is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.

There’s additional evidence to suggest that this unflattering term originated among police in Philadelphia. The late Joseph P. Barrett, a longtime police reporter and feature writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin, reminisced about his part in the use of Black Friday in a 1994 Philadelphia Inquirer article headlined, “This Friday Was Black With Traffic”:

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin.

In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term “Black Friday” to describe the terrible traffic conditions.

However, local police weren’t the only ones who loathed this day. “The ratio of sales personnel-to-customers added to the pandemonium, as the frequent custom at the time was for sales associates to call in sick on this day to extend their Thanksgiving holiday weekend,” Zyla said.

Indeed, in another archived clip from a piece titled “Tips to Good Human Relations for Factory Executives,” which was published in a 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance, the author describes rampant absenteeism the Friday after Thanksgiving:

“Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the “Black Friday” comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick ― and can prove it.

It’s not clear whether Black Friday was a common expression as early as 1951 or if the author of the article was simply being clever, but one thing’s for sure: Not a whole lot of people were fans of that day.

Lipstick On A Pig

Not surprisingly, retailers didn’t love the use of the gloomy term “Black Friday” to describe one of their biggest revenue days. So they put a positive spin on it.

“Black Friday joins a long list of days that have taken on new meaning over time,” Zyla said. As early as 1961, public relations professionals attempted to change the public’s perception of Black Friday. In an issue of Public Relations News, an industry newsletter, the author described efforts by one well-known PR executive to change the day from “Black” to “Big” in order to solidify its reputation as a day of family fun and shopping:

Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by the merchants with their Deputy City Representative, Abe S. Rosen, one of the country’s most experienced municipal PR executives. He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday. The media cooperated in spreading the news of the beauty of Christmas-decorated downtown Philadelphia, the popularity of a “family-day outing” to the department stores during the Thanksgiving weekend, the increased parking facilities, and the use of additional police officers for guaranteeing a free flow of traffic.

The name “Big Friday” didn’t stick, but continued efforts to put a positive spin on the day eventually paid off. Today, most consumers associate Black Friday with the black ink retailers see from increased sales.

“Retailers have little concern today with the origin of the name but have taken full advantage of its global recognition as a day (along with Cyber Monday) to make a significant portion of their yearly sales with one-day-only and doorbuster promotions,” Zyla said. Online sales alone during Black Friday 2018 reached a record $6.22 billion, up 23.6% from the previous year.

It may be a great day for retailers, but a dark cloud still hovers over Black Friday. If shoppers are lucky, gridlocked roads and overcrowded stores are the least of their worries. Over the years, frenzied crowds competing for discounted merchandise have resulted in violence and injuries, including 12 deaths.

Black Friday may not have the same meaning it used to, but the challenges remain the same decades later. If you decide to participate in one of the biggest shopping days of the year, try to have a bit of compassion for others, including your local traffic cop.

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