Black Friday 153 Years in the Making

By Katherine Gourley | December 1, 2022

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was not actually used on the Friday after Thanksgiving; but rather on Friday, September 24, 1869 on Wall Street. In months leading up to this Friday in September famous Wall Street investors, Jim Gould and James Fisk were working together to try and buy majority ownership of gold in the United States so they could later turn around and sell it at a record high. Unfortunately, their idea did not go according to plan and instead caused the stock market to launch into free fall and bankrupt the majority of investors.

The term “Black/big Friday” was next used throughout the 1950s by Philadelphia police as a crowd control code word on the Friday after Thanksgiving when over 100,000 people arrived to the city to watch the annual Army-Navy college football game. The town was reportedly overcrowded with people bustling around the streets and also doing holiday shopping in the big department stores that they did not have in their own hometowns. In addition, that particular weekend of shopping in Philadelphia was also the largest arrest weekend for shoplifting. Consumers did note an increase in sales but did not officially refer to it as anything specific.

The official and nationwide use of “Black Friday” by retailers pertaining to the Black Friday consumers today actually originated from increased profits and the changes in financial statements around the holiday season and not large scale profit losses as noted in 1869. Historically, many retailers faced losses in sales until the fourth quarter and then slow but steady sales to make a profit by the end of year (meaning their books were in the red until a slow turn to black by the end of the quarter).

The 1980s marked the first decade when large scale holiday shopping began directly after Thanksgiving since for the first time indoor malls were the preferred shopping destination. Indoor malls presented a new way to shop with every store located in one area, bustling holiday decorations and opportunities for children to meet Santa, kicking off the holiday season the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers began promoting the day after Thanksgiving as the best day to purchase Christmas gifts and started to offer sales to attract people to take a break from their Thanksgiving family weekend to go shopping. So many sales were made in the first few Fridays after Thanksgiving in the 1980s that retailers jokingly claimed they watched their financial statements flip from ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’ in a 24 hour period.

Since the 1980’s Black Friday has continued to be one of the biggest shopping days for the U.S. economy. However, in recent years retailers have started rolling out sales earlier and earlier, creating a “Black Friday month” in efforts to compete with “Cyber Monday” which became the official largest shopping day for the U.S. economy in 2008, only 3 years after its’ inception. Many analysts now look at Black Friday and Cyber Monday profits combined since there is a blurred line of how and when sales are offered during the kickoff to the holiday season. Needless to say, this use of the term “Black Friday” definitely isn’t going away in the near future.

Edited by Shiloh Fleming