Why do we call Black Friday, “Black Friday”?

Published on November 26th, 2023

Have you ever wondered the origin of the term “Black Friday”?

The day after Thanksgiving in the United States is widely known as “Black Friday”, a term that has become synonymous with frenzied shopping, massive discounts, and the start of the holiday/Christmas shopping season. The name has spread around the globe, with retailers in countries like the United Kingdom seeing the opportunity to encourage shoppers to spend their hard earned money through this high profile sales event.

Despite its popularity as an event, the origin of this curious name is shrouded in a bit of mystery, with two main theories existing for its roots.

Theory 1: The retailer’s perspective

One theory centers on the perspective of retailers themselves. Traditionally, businesses recorded losses in red ink and profits in black ink. Black Friday, under this theory, marks significant profit making for retailers ensuring they end the year “in the black” rather than the red. For some retailers, holiday shopping can be the difference between a profitable or unprofitable year.

Theory 2: Police description of chaos

This more popular theory traces the origin of Black Friday back to Philadelphia in the 1960s. According to this narrative, the term was initially coined by the city’s police force to describe the pandemonium that ensued on the streets as shoppers and vehicles swarmed the area. The chaos was so pronounced that the police began using “Black Friday” to depict the mayhem.

So which theory is right?

Whilst neither theory has been “proven”, the retailer theory feels the weaker to me. “Black Friday” was originally a term used to refer to a financial crisis that occurred on 24th September 1869 (also known as the Fisk-Gould Scandal or the Gold Panic of 1869). It was the result of attempts by financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the gold market, creating a speculative bubble that ultimately led to a financial panic and a sharp drop in gold prices.

The modern association of Black Friday for this boom in retail shopping began to emerge in the 1960s, when the original use of the term would not have been lost on people. The idea of retailers using the name given to a terrible financial crisis of the century before, to refer to a modern day “positive” event in their eyes, seems far-fetched to me. What do you think?

Over time, Black Friday has evolved into a major event with retailers recognizing the potential for high sales. Many sceptics (which I’d have to admit includes myself) point to price increases in previous weeks and other retail tactics used to make discounts look more significant than they are come Black Friday sales to attract eager shoppers. “Black Friday” discounts now run through the month of November for many retailers, to encourage shoppers out, though keen Black Friday buyers often say the best offers are only available on the main Friday.

In recent years, the landscape of Black Friday has changed with the advent of online shopping and the extension of the shopping period. Cyber Monday, the Monday following Thanksgiving, has emerged as a significant online counterpart to Black Friday. Despite these shifts, the name “Black Friday” persists, carrying with it the history of chaos and a thrilling start of the holiday shopping frenzy.

As we navigate the world of modern shopping, Black Friday remains a key date in the calendar, transforming a seemingly mundane day into a retail spectacle.

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