The Real History Of Black Friday

Pop Quiz: Why is the day after Thanksgiving called Black Friday?

If you answered “because that is the day that retailers go ‘into the black,’” you are sadly mistaken. Though that is a pop retail folklore, it’s not technically true. In fact, Black Friday first came to be used in association with Thanksgiving for reasons that initially had nothing to do with commerce. Here’s the history of how the Friday after Thanksgiving got its name.

1951 – The terms was first used in connection with employees calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving, in order to have 4 consecutive days off (this was back before Friday was a standard paid holiday in American business).

From a corporate memo on Snopes

“Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the “Black Friday” comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick — and can prove it.

What to do? Many companies have tried the standard device of denying Thanksgiving Day pay to employees absent the day before and after the holiday. Trouble is, you can’t deny pay to those legitimately ill. But what’s legitimate? Tough to decide these days of often miraculously easy doctors’ certificates.”

1950-1960’s – The Philadelphia police start using the term to refer to the street level chaos that accompanied the annual Army-Navy game played during Thanksgiving weekend.

1961 – By 1961 the police had found a new target for the Thanksgiving weekend frustrations, shoppers. Police and retailers started to use the phrase Black Friday locally to refer to the throngs that crowded Philly’s downtown area and generall created chaos.

For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.

1970’s – Black Friday goes national, starting with the Eastern seaboard. By 1979, the phrase was in common use nationwide to refer to the shopping crush that follows Thanksgiving.

1980’s – The Regan era saw the rise of the “door-buster” sale, with retailers doing anything to lure shoppers to their stores. Though the first door-buster was reportedly offered by J.C. Penny’s in 1949, in the 1980’s it became routine for retailers to try to attract shoppers by opening at 6 AM and offering steep discounts for early risers. The theory was, and still is, if you can attract them with deals you can get consumers to buy more items at full price.

1995 – The year the Black Friday door-busters started even earlier –beginning with Walmart’s 5 AM open time.

2000’s – People started getting a little too carried away.

  • In 2006, a man shopping at Best Buy was recorded on store video assaulting another shopper. Meanwhile Walmart shoppers at a store outside Ohio stampeded and left injured employees in their wake and one elderly employee had to be hospitalized after being beaten up for a free gift card.
  • In 2008, a 34-year old Walmart employee was trampled to death when 200 over-eager shoppers rushed the door. The incident may be the first case of a death occurring during Black Friday sales; according to the National Retail Federation, “We are not aware of any other circumstances where a retail employee has died working on the day after Thanksgiving.”
  • In 2011, a woman at a California Walmart used pepper spray on fellow shoppers, causing minor injuries to at least 10 people who had been waiting hours for the store to open. It was later reported that the incident caused 20 injuries and that the woman felt driven to pepper spray when she felt others in line (who were waiting for an XBOX 360) were not behaving. According to a witness “The store had brought out a crate of discounted Xbox 360s, and a crowd had formed to wait for the unwrapping, when the woman began spraying people ‘in order to get an advantage,’ according to the police.
  • In 2012, two people were shot outside a Wal-Mart in Tallahassee, Florida during a dispute over a parking space.

2013 – Black Friday declared “dead”

From a commentary

“The American ‘holiday,’ Black Friday, which in recent years has been notable for interrupting family Thanksgiving dinners, will cease to exist this November, due to complications from digital commerce.”

2014Consumers did not get the message.

  • 60 Pecent plan to shop during Thanksgiving Weekend.

Americans plan to spend $295 million between now and Cyber-Monday

So now you know everything there is to know about Black Friday. Now, it’s time to go impress your friends with your command of holiday shopping trivia!