Starting as far back as the 19th century, there’s been an informal convention that Thanksgiving is the kickoff to the Christmas season. Retailers have long tried to reinforce this association in people’s minds, encouraging them to start hitting the stores as soon as possible after Thanksgiving.
By the early 20th century, department stores were hosting parades (for example, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade goes all the way back to 1924) that included Santa Claus and as much or more Christmas themes as Thanksgiving themes. Retailers took to staying open through the Thanksgiving weekend, precisely because most other businesses closed from Thursday through Sunday, which left their workers free to shop.
So the Friday after Thanksgiving has been a significant Christmas shopping day for a century or more. But in recent decades it has grown even more as retailers have competed with each other to get the eager shoppers into their stores by offering more and more enticing sales. They have also gradually expanded their hours. It is not uncommon now for stores to open at 5 AM or 6 AM on the Friday after Thanksgiving, with eager shoppers camped out front waiting for the doors to open so they can have a shot at the store’s “early bird” specials.
The result is the day after Thanksgiving is the single biggest volume retail sales day of the year most years, in part because it is also at or near the top of the list of days each year with the greatest price discounts.
But why has this day come to be called “Black Friday”?
Normally when a day is nicknamed as “black,” that’s a bad thing. “Black Tuesday” famously refers to the stock market crash that occurred on Tuesday, October 29, 1929, setting off the Great Depression. “Black Monday” similarly refers to the crash of financial markets worldwide on Monday, October 19, 1987. And indeed “Black Friday,” though not used as commonly as these, once referred to the stock market panic set off by plummeting gold prices on Friday, September 24, 1864.
To take the point one step further, even the “Black Friday” term used to refer to the Friday after Thanksgiving probably originally had negative connotations. The first use of the term in that context that historians have been able to trace occurred in the 1960s in Philadelphia where that Friday was deemed “Black” because of the miserable, dangerous conditions of having masses of people clogging the streets and stores, and so much more traffic than usual on the roads.
Indeed, people have been shot and trampled to death over the years on Black Friday, as tension and tempers run high.
But ultimately the retailers were able to reclaim and reinterpret the term, so that the “Black” in Black Friday was understood to refer to profits, as in being “in the black” versus being “in the red.” Specifically it was claimed that “Black Friday” was the day that most retailers crossed the line of showing a cumulative profit for the year.
All the frenzied shopping on Black Friday supposedly gets them “in the black” for the year.
It’s possible that the importance of Black Friday has already peaked. Some of the business is now being redirected to “Cyber Monday” three days later, and in general people are shopping online from home more and more each year, finding it far preferable to hop on the computer at midnight in their underwear and mouse click their way through their Christmas shopping, than to line up in the cold on a specific day at a specific time to outcompete a zillion other people doing the same all trying to grab this year’s hottest toy or video game before they’re all gone from the shelves.
Dan Fletcher, ” A Brief History of Black Friday.” Time.
“Black Friday History.” Black Friday.