Sound bites

  • Millions around the world know of Black Friday as the day of must-have deals.
  • Black Friday is celebrated every year after Thanksgiving, kicking off the holiday sale season for many retailers.
  • It’s a common misconception that Black Friday got its name from the financial term ‘into the black,’ which describes a company turning huge profits.
  • Black Friday, however, had a more sinister origin—first used to report the financial collapse of 1869 before being shared as an inside joke among Philadelphian city workers.
  • The phrase quickly became a local phenomenon for describing the chaos after Thanksgiving.
  • To stop people from being put off by going into stores, retailers put their own positive spin on the term, which has now been engraved into people’s minds ever since.

The Day Before the Day After

The United States without Thanksgiving is like Thanksgiving dinner with no turkey, or apple pie without the apples.

Since 1621, Thanksgiving has been one of the most beloved American holidays. So well-loved that four hundred years, two world wars, and one Declaration of Independence later, we still celebrate Turkey Day with family, food, and plenty of thanksgiving.

But while Thanksgiving is usually a time of generosity, goodwill, and gratitude, The Day After is less about giving and more about receiving (and then some!).

In comes Black Friday

If people are like moths, then Black Friday is a flame (an ever burning one at that).

Every year, millions of ravenous Americans flock to the stores and prowl online in the hopes of saving a ton of cash on sweet Black Friday bargains.

Black Friday a.k.a. the busiest shopping day of the year is no joke.

According to media reports, the average American spends $400 on Black Friday sales alone. That’s 12.5% of their total monthly spending!

Black Friday has cemented itself as a staple in modern American culture and has been since at least the mid-1980s.

But unlike Thanksgiving, Black Friday is a bit of an enigma. Ask the Joe Bloggs and John Does on the street where Black Friday came from, and you’ll probably get puzzled looks.

Even more puzzling is its name, which at first glance sounds quite ominous. After all, we don’t exactly think of Black Monday and Black Tuesday as the happiest of days, let alone a time of unmissable deals.   

So, where does Black Friday really come from? The answer might just about surprise you…

The Story Begins

Did you know that the first Black Friday had nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with Thanksgiving?

Let’s rewind 152 years…

The main characters in this story were two shrewd Wall Street big shots, who, doing what any crook does when they want a quick cash grab, bought a whole lot of gold to drive prices high.

The plan was to wait for prices to be at an all-time high before selling their dirty gold for a huge but dishonest profit.

As expected, this story never got a happy ending, not because the two crooks were able to get away with their trickery, but because once the short-lived conspiracy was discovered, the government told everyone that it would sell their gold reserves for a whopping $4 million.

The news about the government ran riot across the market. And as monkey see monkey do, people lost the confidence in gold, causing prices to plummet.

Without any money left to repay their lenders, thousands of investors (and anyone else who took out loans to buy gold) lost everything. They were utterly bankrupt.

Therefore, Friday, September 24, 1869, became known as Black Friday: the day when the market crashed, causing a rippling effect on the economy for many years to come.

Will the real Black Friday please stand up?

The Black Friday of 1869 might have had an impact well beyond its years. Still, it never really became a household term, definitely not like the Black Friday that we know of today.

That’s why we must now travel back to the furious fifties in the Keystone State of Philadelphia, where Black Friday as we know it first got its name.

Philadelphia has always been an essential part of American history, and it certainly is no stranger to revolution.

In the 1950s, however, the city sparked a different kind of revolution: a quiet, slow-burning fever that turned into a consumerist frenzy.

It would be an understatement to say that downtown Philly was bustling, cheerful, and animated at this point in time; some might say even more so than today.

Just picture a crowded city center jam-packed full of people. Then think about what it would look like with thousands more, then thousands more…

That was Philadelphia when it hosted an Army-Navy football game on the weekend after Thanksgiving (which saw droves of people across the country trek into the city).

Retailers obviously took advantage of this and offered sales, leading to more crowding and congestion.

The city became so busy that traffic cops were ordered to work 12-hour shifts just to deal with the Thanksgiving mayhem.

Traffic cops weren’t the only unlucky ones. Add them to the list of many disgruntled police officers, retail workers, cleaners, and security guards who had to work overtime during the weekend.

(It’s no surprise then that many workers called in sick just to avoid the commotion.)

The chaos got so bad that city workers started to call the day after Thanksgiving the dreaded Black Friday, gaining traction as a local inside joke.

And by the mid-1960s, the term became so common, it started to appear in local newspapers, journals, and other articles published in the period.

The Retailers’ Revolt

Unsurprisingly, a lot of retailers were furious, especially since the Thanksgiving weekend was one of their biggest moneymaking holidays.

They desperately needed to lure shoppers into boosting their sales, which weren’t that great in the run-up to Thanksgiving.

Several attempts were therefore made by some of the big retailers to turn ‘Black Friday’ into ‘Big Friday,’ the biggest Friday of the year, filled with the biggest sales (catchy, right?).

Unfortunately for them (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), ‘Big Friday’ never caught on, and just like the mysterious “Thanksgiving-weekend bug” that caused countless Philadelphians to call in sick, the term Black Friday spread like wildfire across the country, getting widespread media attention.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, the verdict was in, and the public had spoken. The Day after Thanksgiving had one name and one name only: the infamous Black Friday.

Lipstick on a Pig

Now that ‘Big Friday’ was a goner, retailers had to come up with a way to dress up Black Friday and make it more appealing. They don’t, after all, want to put people off from spending their hard-earned cash in their stores.

That’s when they came up with an explanation so ingenious it eclipsed any sort of memory people had of the old Black Friday.

A business was said to be doing really badly when it was ‘in the red’. That’s because back in the days of good ol’ pen and paper, accountants marked up losses with red ink in their financial reports. So, a financial statement full of red ink was a sign that a company was making huge losses.

The flip side to ‘in the red’ was ‘into the black’, and it described companies that were making a good profit (because their financial reports weren’t marked in red).

And so, a new narrative was born.

The day after Thanksgiving was Black because it was the time when businesses’ financial accounts turned from red to black.

(Even though, technically, Christmas was the most profitable time for businesses, even to this day.)

Love it or hate it—Black Friday is here to stay

If there’s one thing we can learn from the twisted truth behind Black Friday, it would be this: everyone loves a good bargain.

That’s why a sinister-sounding day like Black Friday never really put people off from facing swarms of shoppers in the Black Friday panic.  

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