A History of Black Friday – Memory Road

A History of Black Friday

Posted by Courtney Clem on

A History of Black Friday

Black Friday is the largest and most profitable day for retailers across the nation. Yet, it didn’t originally start out that. The meaning behind Black Friday has changed over the last century as it evolved into what it is today.

The Origin of the Term Black Friday

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was actually in reference to the financial crisis. The U.S. gold market crashed when two ruthless Wall Street financers worked together to buy all the nation’s gold. Jay Gould and Jim Fisk hoped that by buying all the gold they could drive the price sky-high and sell it for incredible profits. On Friday, September 24th 1869, their scheme unraveled as other financiers became aware of the plot, sending the stock market into a free-fall that bankrupted everyone on Wall Street. While this is the first recorded use of the term “Black Friday,” it would take decades for the retail industry to commercialize it into the shopping spree holiday we know today.

Black Friday Myth

A common myth about the origin of Black Friday refers to how retailers would report profits and losses on their accounting books. In an age without technology or computers, accountants would record profits in black ink and losses in red ink to help quickly identify the numbers in the accounting books. After a year of operating at a loss or in the “red,” retailers would capitalize on Black Friday by offering special sales and discounts in the hopes of recording a profit for the day in black ink. It is true that businesses used to record profits in black and losses in red, however, this is not the origin of Black Friday.

Black Friday History

The real origin story for Black Friday is less pleasant and more complicated than colored ink. In the 1950s, hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists would flood the city of Philadelphia on the Friday after Thanksgiving in anticipation of the Army-Navy football game. The Philadelphia police described the chaos as “Black Friday” because of how large the crowds were and the number of crimes that were committed in the city that day. The police officers would have to work overtime to deal with the shoplifters and vandals that entered the city. Over the years, the term Black Friday developed a negative connotation for local residents. Philadelphia retailers tried to spin the negative association with the term “Black Friday” by renaming it “Big Friday,” but they were unsuccessful.

By the late 1980s, retailers finally found a way to spin Black Friday in their favor and change how consumers view the day forever. They spread the idea that the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Christmas holiday season and was how America’s retail stores would finally turn the red to black. They creatively advertise the well-known colored ink story mentioned previously and offered special discounts specifically for Black Friday. The heart-warming story of American businesses turning a profit worked, and each year the popularity of Black Friday spread. In 2021, U.S. consumers spent a total of $8.9 billion on Black Friday.

Quick Facts About Black Friday History

The First Macy's Day Parade

The First Macy’s Day Parade

To market their concept that the Christmas Holiday season had begun, large retailer Macy’s created the Macy’s Day Parade. The very first Macy’s Day Parade was held on Thanksgiving Day in 1924 and was advertised as a “Christmas Parade.” It featured Santa Claus and live animals from the Central Park Zoo. This helped to solidify the Black Friday shopping holiday and put consumers in the Christmas spirit. After 3 years, they decided to replace live animals with the iconic oversized balloons we see today.

FDR at Thanksgiving Celebration

The Official Thanksgiving Holiday

For a time, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November. In 1939, the National Retail Dry Goods Association pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt into moving the holiday up a week to extend the shopping season. The move became a failure and was mockingly called “Franksgiving” due to the widespread confusion and controversy it caused consumers. Only 23 states adopted the change, and  in 1941, Congress made it official that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.

Black Friday Crowds

Black Friday Becomes America’s Shopping Holiday

Throughout the 1980s, Black Friday took on a new meaning as retailers began to record astounding profits from the single sale day. This led retail stores to find creative ways to offer sales, discounts, or promotions to entice consumers to visit their store over their competitors’. By the 1990s, retail stores were opening in the early hours of the morning, or even midnight, in an attempt to make the most of the Black Friday crowd rush. Weeks before Black Friday, retailers would announce their special offers, purchase limits, and exclusive products which encouraged consumers to start camping outside on Thanksgiving night so they could be the first one in the door. Some states even declared Black Friday an official holiday and gave government employees the day off.

History of Cyber Monday

Black Friday is Extended to Cyber Monday

The popularity of Black Friday continues to grow each year, and after the invention of the internet, retailers sought out ways to extend the shopping craze. In 2005, Cyber Monday was born – a Black Friday alternative where consumers could shop exclusive discounts online. Cyber Monday quickly became just as popular, if not more popular, than Black Friday because it allowed consumers to place orders from the convenience of their home. The event also spurred retailers to create a digital website to seize the opportunity to make more money. In 2021, Cyber Monday sales in the U.S. totaled $10.7 billion.

History of Black Friday

A Violent Black Friday

In 2006, Black Friday took a violent turn as shoppers overwhelmed security staff and employees across the country. A mall in Utah experienced 15,000 shoppers tearing through stores, looking for merchandise and fighting over limited quantities. A Best Buy in Virginia had shoppers getting in fistfights and line jumping. In California, 10 people were injured while scrambling to grab at one of the 500 prize balloons. In 2013, the first Black Friday death occurred when shoppers in Long Island trampled a Walmart employee. Since 2006, there have been 17 deaths and 125 injuries related to the Black Friday holiday. 

History of Small Business Saturday

Black Friday for Small Businesses

As if two shopping holidays were not enough, in 2010 the idea of Small Business Saturday was born. Credit card company American Express promoted a new shopping day by offering small businesses free online ads in 2010. The idea inspired consumers to support local small businesses instead of the big box retail chains. In 2021, Small Business Saturday reached an all-time high, with an estimated $23.3 billion in U.S. consumer spending.  

Black Friday in Canada

Black Friday in Canada

It wasn’t until the late 2000s that Black Friday was celebrated by retailers in Canada. Until then, the most popular shopping holiday was “Boxing Day,” which now refers to the after-holiday sales that start on December 26th. Traditionally, Boxing Day represented the day Anglican Church poor boxes would be filled during Advent. It is also speculated that Boxing Day originated from the custom of the aristocracy presenting gifts after Christmas to servants, employees and trades people. Either way, Boxing Day has been celebrated by the Commonwealth for hundreds of years. Even though Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, Black Friday is still celebrated on the same day as in the U.S.

Black Friday Around the World

Black Friday Around the World

United States retailers have set the standard for Black Friday and holiday sales. Retailers and countries around the world have jumped on the Black Friday trend to offer their own assortment of specials to attract consumers. International companies, such as Walmart and Amazon, will extend Black Friday promotions to consumers in other countries. Local retailers in Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Liechtenstein, Poland, Italy, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Mexico have also been known to join in on the shopping frenzy.


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