Dark Horizon: Black Friday History

19 Nov

To begin the journey into Black Friday a bit of a historical perspective is in order to lay the ground work. If one does an internet search for the term “black friday history” thousands of links to sites will be returned each with a rather similar but unique take on the subject. Many of the links I randomly clicked focused on the phrase used when focusing on shopping. However, the phrase was used long before people dashed away to the shopping mall to get the perfect gifts.

The first known use of the phrase “Black Friday” which I could find dated back to 1896 when Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States [1]. Put in perspective, the current president is number 43 and Grant was number 18. The event centered around two men, James Fisk and Jay Gould, who attempted to corner the gold market. By obtaining as much gold as possible they tried to drive the price to an artificially high amount. However, their plan was discovered and the cost of gold dropped dramatically, which caused their plan to fail. The dramatic rise and fall of prices which resulted in investors losing their money earned the day the label of “Black Friday”.

The next use of of the term I found was when managers at factories noticed the large amount of workers calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving. [2] The number of employees out for the day was apparently so bad it was commented to be almost as bad as the bubonic plague. Not quite the visual of a winter wonderland.

Then around the 1960’s began the idea of using the phrase to describe the beginning of the holiday shopping season. In Philadelphia it was first used again in a negative connotation do describe the traffic nightmare police faced as shoppers descended upon the stores the days following Thanksgiving. [3]

“For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.”

How did the term go from such negative descriptions to what we know today? If we look right after this officer’s dissenting viewpoint, we can see what could be the birthing of the “Black Friday” we currently know and loath or love.

“Abe S. Rosen, one of the country’s most experienced municipal PR executives … recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.”

While people would go out and do much shopping after Thanksgiving, not everyone had heard of the phrase by 1985. [4] In fact, at the time Black Friday had different regional meanings still. From a Philidelphia Inqiuirer article at the time, Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati, noted, “Black Friday out here means the day of the Great Flood in 1937.” In fact the National Retail Merchants Association had a statement about Black Friday which said, “Black Friday is not an accepted term in the retail industry and as far as retailers are concerned, it is understood to mean the Friday the stock market crashed in 1929.”

While the retailers wanted to change the name to something else, the idea to take the bad and spin it into something positive to increase sales and revenues is there. It wasn’t until the 1980’s when more and more retailers began to look at spinning the “Black Friday” phrase to their advantage. Eventually the idea of using the old accounting practice of going from red ink to black ink surfaced and was accepted. From there the marketing arms of retail stores took over and the fruit of that labor is all around us now.

An interesting side note, during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt thought it was a good idea to move the Thanksgiving up holiday one week to help increase retail sales. [5] What he didn’t expect was a backlash against altering, at the time, one of America’s most cherished holidays. This changing of Thanksgiving celebration caused a split in the days states chose to celebrate the holiday with little to no results of the hoped increase in retail sales. Some even labeled the change as Franksgiving. In that regard, Black Friday doesn’t sound too bad.

Sources –

  1. Wikipedia – Black Friday (1869)
  2. American Public Media Marketplace – The history of Black Friday
  3. Linguist List
  4. Jennifer Lin’s ‘Why the Name ‘Black Friday?’ Uh … Well …” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 November 1985, Business, Pg. D08
  5. Wikipedia – Franksgiving
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