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A Short History of Black Friday

November 26, 2014

The Friday following Thanksgiving has become synonymous with shopping, holiday sales, and stampeding crowds. Here are some fascinating facts about black Friday history and how it all began.

  • Black Friday HistoryIt’s common knowledge that the term “Black Friday” refers to the busy shopping day being the first day that retailers make a profit after months of slow sales (stores so from “in the red” on their profit margins to “in the black”). But it’s not true. Not only would most stores not make it all the way until late November without earning a profit, but the first known usage dates to 1951, when it referred to employees skipping out on work that day to enjoy the now standard four-day weekend.
  • There’s also another theory. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a Philadelphia traffic cop coined it in the late ‘50s to describe his negative feelings about working over the holiday weekend. It caught on among his equally frustrated coworkers, most of whom were stuck working 12-hour shifts on the day after Thanksgiving dealing with the cranky holiday shoppers who crammed into downtown Philadelphia. A reporter for the Inquirer used the term in a cover story about Thanksgiving gridlock in 1960, and it may have spread from there.
  • Naturally, merchants in downtown Philadelphia didn’t like one of their busiest days of the year being described as “black.” They complained to the city’s police commissioner, who issued a press statement the following year asking area shoppers, journalists, and cops alike to use the term “Big Friday” instead. Obviously, it didn’t catch on, but Philadelphia retailers stubbornly used “Big Friday” in regional advertisements and promos well into the 1970s. Some historians and linguists even theorize that the “profit margin” explanation was a conspiracy by these merchants to put a more positive spin on “Black Friday” after they lost the battle.
  • The term slowly spread across the country in the ‘80s and retailers from sea-to-shining sea also began offering tantalizing deals to lure shoppers. Since then, it’s spawned off-shots like Buy Nothing Day, Small Business Saturday, Gray Thursday, and Cyber Monday.
  • If you’re heading to a mall this Black Friday, hang on to this story. It’ll give you something to talk about while you’re waiting in line.
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