The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.

READ MORE: Thanksgiving History and Traditions

Macy’s parade on November 27, 1924 was advertised as a “Christmas Parade” with the arrival of Santa Claus signaling the official start of the holiday shopping season. The original parade, promoted in full-page advertisements as a “marathon of mirth,” included live animals from the Central Park Zoo. In 1927, the live animals were replaced by giant balloon animals. Read more

” data-full-height=”1303″ data-full-src=”” data-full-width=”2000″ data-image-id=”ci0237c92c60002511″ data-image-slug=”Thanksgiving Trivia-1st Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade-Getty-515134184″ data-public-id=”MTU5ODE3NDk1NjMxMzczNTg1″ data-source-name=”Bettmann Archive/Getty Images” data-title=”1924 – The First Macy’s Parade”>Franklin D. Roosevelt caved to pressure from the National Retail Dry Goods Association and moved it a week earlier to extend the holiday shopping season. “Franksgiving,” as it was mockingly called, triggered widespread controversy and confusion. Only 23 states adopted the change, creating a de facto double holiday that was finally rectified in 1941, when Congress officially proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November.

” data-full-height=”1583″ data-full-src=”” data-full-width=”2000″ data-image-id=”ci0237c958600025e1″ data-image-slug=”Thanksgiving Trivia-FDR-Roosevelt-Getty-515449066″ data-public-id=”MTU5ODE3NjkyMzk0NTYzMDQx” data-source-name=”Bettmann Archive/Getty Images” data-title=”1939 – FDR Creates ‘Franksgiving’”>Black Friday took on a new meaning in the 1980s as the day that stores sold so much merchandise that their annual revenue went from being “in the red” (loss) to “in the black” (profit). As Black Friday grew in popularity in the 1990s, stores began opening their doors at midnight or the early hours of Friday, so people started to camp out. Some states declared Black Friday an official holiday for government employees and the shopping phenomenon began spreading worldwide. 

” data-full-height=”1333″ data-full-src=”” data-full-width=”2000″ data-image-id=”ci02385dc360002577″ data-image-slug=”Black Friday-Gallery-GettyImages-156843539″ data-public-id=”MTU5OTgwODc5Njc3MTA1Njk2″ data-source-name=”Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images” data-title=”1980s & 1990s – America’s Shopping Holiday is Born”>This is when things started getting ugly. At a mall in Utah, 15,000 shoppers overwhelmed security and employees, tearing through merchandise looking for the best “doorbuster” deals. At a Virginia Best Buy, shoppers got in fistfights over line-jumping. And 10 people in California were injured scrambling for 500 prize balloons. The first Black Friday death came in 2013, when frenzied shoppers in Long Island tragically trampled Walmart employee Jdimytai Damour. According to Black Friday Death Count, there have been 10 deaths and 111 injuries since 2006.

” data-full-height=”2000″ data-full-src=”” data-full-width=”1442″ data-image-id=”ci02385dc360002620″ data-image-slug=”Black Friday-Gallery-AP_081128046323″ data-public-id=”MTU5OTgwODc5Njc2OTc0NjI0″ data-source-name=”Ed Betz/AP Photo” data-title=”2006 – Black Friday Mayhem Turns Violent”>A Visual History of Black Friday: From Financial Crash to Shopping Mania

Thanksgiving Trivia-1st Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade-Getty-515134184

In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy enslaved workers at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday’s roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.

The real history behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might 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 in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. 

The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten. Since then, the one-day sales bonanza has morphed into a four-day event, and spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday. Stores started opening earlier and earlier on that Friday, and now the most dedicated shoppers can head out right after their Thanksgiving meal.


Sarah Pruitt

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