How Did Black Friday Come to Be?

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In the modern era, eager shoppers throughout the U.S. know Black Friday as a day of massive retail bargains. The thought of saving money and snagging good deals strikes a completely different tone than the word “black” in the day’s title brings to mind. That’s because Black Friday has surprisingly dark origins.

Dispelling three Black Friday name myths

The term “Black Friday” was first used 150 years ago. When the U.S. gold market crashed on September 24, 1869, the financial crisis that followed was known as “Black Friday.” The name was appropriately dark for the occasion, as the gold market crash led to bankruptcies among Wall Street barons and farmers alike. It also destroyed the entire U.S. stock market. This event, though dramatic and historically important, is not at all relevant to the modern Black Friday despite some people attempting to link the two.

Another false narrative regarding the name “Black Friday” is that it has roots in the slave trade. Some people have claimed that, when slavery was legal, slaves would be made available for purchase at steep discounts the day after Thanksgiving. However, there is no historical evidence of such a practice ever existing.

Other people have suggested that Black Friday might be a play on the accounting term “in the black.” This term signals that a business’s books show it turning a profit. When the books instead show a net loss, the accounting term used is “in the red.” On Black Friday, since more people shop than on almost any other day of the year, businesses tend to be in the black for the day, so this version of the name’s origins does make sense. However, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Where the name Black Friday really comes from

Although the practice of retailers offering bargains after Thanksgiving precedes the national founding of Black Friday, one event in Philadelphia ultimately led to the adoption of the holiday’s title nationwide. In the middle part of the 20th century, the Army-Navy football game regularly took place the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Philadelphia (it now takes place within the few weeks after instead). The game caused not just a massive influx of cars and people into the city, but a drastic increase in the number of shoppers flocking the city’s stores for post-Thanksgiving shopping deals. This made the city’s holiday mayhem among the most intense in the nation, and police had to work overtime to maintain order.

Eventually, the Philadelphia Police Department grew impatient with the chaos and began devising ways to lessen it. That’s where the name “Black Friday” comes from. In ascribing such a bleak-sounding name to the day, Philadelphia’s police force hoped that people would be discouraged from heading into the city to watch the game and traverse the city in search of huge discounts. 

Instead, though, the opposite happened. The crowds kept coming, and in the 1980s, a national misunderstanding developed that led to those rumors about the name “Black Friday” stemming from “in the black.” Corporations looking to increase their sales for the occasion likewise latched onto the notion of Black Friday, branding it into the national phenomenon it is today.

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