The first recorded use of the word “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: in fact, on September 24, 1869, the crash of the US gold market. Two famously greedy Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, were working together to buy the nation’s gold as soon as they could, trying to push the sky-high price and sell it for incredible profits. The conspiracy finally unraveled that Friday in September, sending the stock market into free fall and bankrupting everybody from barons on Wall Street to farmers.
It is linked to retailers by the most frequently repeated story behind the post-thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition. As the story goes, on the day after Thanksgiving, after a whole year of running at a loss (“in the red”) stores supposedly would make a profit (“went into the black”), because holiday shoppers spent too much money on discounted products. While retail firms used to report red losses and black income while doing their accounting, this version of the roots of Black Friday is the officially sanctioned — but inaccurate — story behind the practice.
Yet the real story behind Black Friday isn’t as sunny as retailers would have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city ahead of the big Army-Navy football game held every year on that Saturday. Not only would it not be possible for Philadelphia officers to take the day off, so they would have to work extra long hours dealing with the heavy crowds and traffic. Shoplifters will also use the bedlam in supermarkets to make off with goods, causing inconvenience to law enforcement.
In 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the point that retailers and promoters in the city unsuccessfully tried to turn it into “Big Friday” to eliminate the negative connotations. However, the term did not spread to the rest of the country until much later and it was not in common use nationwide as recently as 1985. Nevertheless, sometime in the late 1980s retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and transform it into something that focused on them and their consumers in a constructive rather than negative manner.
The result was the previously mentioned “red to black” concept of the holiday, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. (Traditionally, the shops have higher sales the Saturday before Christmas.)
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The myth of Black Friday persisted, and the darker origins of the word in Philadelphia were mostly forgotten pretty soon. The one-day sales bonanza has since transformed into a four-day event, spawning other “retail holidays” like Small Business Saturday / Sunday and Cyber Monday. On that Friday, stores began to open earlier and earlier, and now the most dedicated shoppers can head out right after their Thanksgiving meal.