Where did "Black Friday" get its name?

The history of a manufactured holiday. It dates back to 1924, believe it or not

Published November 22, 2013 1:24PM (EST)

Discounts. Door buster deals. Early-bird sales. Black Friday is considered the single biggest shopping day of the year. While the name Black Friday may bring to mind the stock market crash or a citywide power outage, this unofficial U.S. holiday, which falls the day after Thanksgiving, has been traditionally the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season.

Black Friday has evolved, however,  since the term was first coined in the 1960s. Just as we roll the clock back every year in accordance with Standard Time, retailers and merchants open their doors to bargain hunters earlier each passing year. Today, millions of potential shoppers will have barely finished their Thanksgiving dessert or shaken off the tryptophan daze by the time the mall is opening for business. Black Friday deals, at leading retailers such as Target, Macy’s, Toys R Us and Kohls will open store doors as early as 6 pm on Thanksgiving Day. According to the National Retail Federation, 41.8 million people went shopping on Thursday in 2012.

So where did the name Black Friday originate? How did the day after Thanksgiving (and now eating into Thanksgiving) become the biggest shopping day of the year? In the old days of hand-kept accounting records, red ink indicated a stores loss, and black ink signified a profit. The holiday shopping season is believed to be when stores move from the red to the black. It is said that 20-40 percent of a retailers annual revenue is generated in November and December.

Just like Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start to summer, Thanksgiving, and later in history, Black Friday signify the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season. It has been this way since 1924, when Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. For the past 89 years Thanksgiving has been uniquely associated with shopping and consumerism. The holiday parade is a Thanksgiving tradition, but it is also a three-hour advertisement for Macys and a surefire way to get potential shoppers in the door.

The name Black Friday has other connotations as well, and in this day and age it’s difficult to decipher the facts from the myths. It is said that in the 1950s, people working in industrial factories referred to the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday because so many people didn’t show up for work. Whether these people were out bargain hunting or simply comatose from too much holiday fun, no one knows.

The term Black Friday, however, didn’t go mainstream until the 1960s, when Philadelphia police used the expression to complain about streets clogged with shoppers, pedestrians and motorists on the day after Thanksgiving. The phrase was first used in an article in The American Philatelist. By the 1970s, the Philadelphia area was using the expression Black Friday to signal the beginning of the holiday shopping season, and the rest is history.

Black Friday is a unique combination of holiday tradition and consumerism. It’s an unofficial, pre-packaged holiday that is an equally loved and loathed part of the Thanksgiving weekend. For every consumer willing to brave the mall to score a limited-time offer on electronics, there is another who would rather avoid the crowds and hassle. The Black Friday shopper is a different breed, a sort of super-shopper who thrives on the competition and camaraderie of Black Friday shopping almost as much as the deal itself.

Looking for a competitive edge, chances are retailers and merchants will continue to roll back Black Friday even deeper into Thanksgiving, or maybe even to the Wednesday of the holiday week. It is consumers themselves who fuel the lengthening of Black Friday through their insatiable thirst for deals. And retailers, to their credit, are more than happy to feed into the needs of today’s consumer, and at the same time help themselves fend off the ever-growing popularity of online shopping.

By Libra White

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