Insight Into Black Friday’s Surprising History, Evolution

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Americans think of Black Friday as a crazy 24 hours during which shoppers scramble to find discounts on various items. This frenzied event is extremely valuable to stores and retailers due to the skyrocketed profits it generates. In 2019 alone, Black Friday’s online sales raked in $11.9 billion. However, few know about the surprisingly troublesome history behind the cherished occasion.

Origins of Black Friday

Black Friday dates back to the 1800s when the term ‘black’ was widely used to characterize economic stress. For example, the Panic of 1869 started on Sept. 20, when two Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and James Fisk, decided to buy as much gold as possible to drive up the price and sell it later on to make large profits. Unfortunately, four days later, on Friday, Sept. 24, the government released gold for sale, and the value dropped instantly. Investors in the gold market were desperate to sell their inventory and almost became bankrupt.

The Great Depression was also described as a ‘black’ time in the United States. Stock prices had been receding in early Autumn of 1929, and on Thursday, Oct. 24, a maximum of 12,894,650 shares was traded — cementing Black Thursday in history. Black Monday occurred the following week, in which the market rapidly declined 12.8%. Finally, the day after was known as Black Tuesday, where stock prices collapsed entirely, pushing thousands of Americans into financial ruin.

How The Workforce Changed Black Friday

Although ‘black’ had previously been used to express economic situations, the term began taking on a different meaning in the 1900s. Factory workers in the 1950’s often dishonestly used their sick leave the day after Thanksgiving to extend their holiday. With a shortage of staff, factory managers loathed the day and insisted on calling it Black Friday.

A decade later, in the 1960s, Philadelphia police officers also started referring to the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday. On this particular day, streets, where officers had to patrol, were typically overcrowded from tourists, shoppers, and an enormous amount of avid football fans who wanted to attend the Army-Navy match held annually on that Saturday. Thus, many people in the police force had to work extra hours, which further fuelled their aggravation.

Ever since the usage of Black Friday from the Philadelphia police, the term spread like wildfire throughout the city. Soon sales workers used the phrase to describe the long lines, frantic customers, and other stressors they underwent during that weekend.

By 1961, Black Friday had become a popular event in Philadelphia. Merchants and shop owners had even attempted to rename it to Big Friday to invoke positive feelings toward the day. Finally, in the 1980s, Black Friday became a nationally known trademark that many were familiar with, including various merchants and store owners who seeked to benefit from it.

In the late 1980s, retailers decided to reinvent Black Friday and make it more positive since the event was centered around frustrated workers and financial troubles. Many people supported the idea that Black Friday represented stores attaining prosperity. Profits moved from ‘red,’ meaning loss, to ‘black,’ meaning gain, during the day after Thanksgiving because it was the start of the Christmas shopping season, where consumers frequently purchased more items.

Common Misconceptions and How Black Friday Has Evolved

Another common myth about Black Friday’s origin is that it’s connected to slavery. A few people alleged that the day after Thanksgiving in the 1800s, the price of slaves dropped considerably; thus, it was named Black Friday. These claims arose from Facebook and Twitter, which led to groups of shoppers who befittingly decided to boycott the event. However, there is no known evidence that this tale is true, and many believe it to be another internet hoax.

Over the past two centuries, Black Friday has taken on many meanings and roles in our society. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Black Friday was synonymous with the recession and financial panic. In the mid 20th century, Black Friday represented the irritation of a long workday. Finally, ever since the late 1980s, the shopping craze has become a special event for retailers and consumers, as tremendous sales engulf the nation each year.

Through Teen Lenses:

“Some cons of Black Friday is that there are too many people in stores, and it is too chaotic. People are wrestling for discounted items from each other, and sometimes people get hurt.” Wendy Liu, Sophomore, Walter Johnson High School, Bethesda Maryland
“One thing I like about Black Friday is how cheap everything is. I like cheap things because I am constantly broke. One thing I do not like is how competitive people can be on Black Friday. They might snag something right when you’re ready to get it, and I get frustrated easily.” Lulu Baker, Sophomore, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville Maryland
“I really like how everything is on sale on Black Friday and I can get really good deals, but I dislike the long lines and how it’s easy to find things out of stock so quickly.” Manha Shaikh, Sophomore, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville Maryland

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