After watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, rooting for favorite football teams and expressing thanks for our blessings while feasting on turkey or tofu with all the trimmings, many of us turn our attention to the bounty of bargains known as Black Friday.
But the name of the day that kicks off what this year is expected to be a $680 billion Christmas retail season hasn’t always been associated with hordes of shoppers stalking discounts, deals and steals.
Take a look at Black Friday’s dark origins, its meanings and its emergence as a marketing sensation, still one of the busiest shopping days of the year and nearly a national holiday in its own right.
The revolting beginning
The first popularly recorded use of the phrase “Black Friday” had nothing to do with shopping for bargains and everything to do with a fight over who would rule England. On Dec. 6, 1745, the army of the Jacobite political movement, which had been marching south from Scotland in support of returning Roman Catholic “Bonnie Prince Charlie” Edward Stuart and his heirs to the British throne, began a retreat northward.
The English government dubbed the day “Black Friday” as news had reached London that the Jacobites had reached Derby, 10 days from London. Panicky people rushed to withdraw their money from the Bank of England, almost toppling the bank, but the deposed prince and his councilors decided that day they were unlikely to have enough military support to succeed.
The era is depicted in the “Outlander” sci-fi/drama/romance book series by Diana Gabaldon and adapted into the hit TV series of the same name starring Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, the time-traveling nurse, now in its third season on Starz.
How Lincoln and FDR contributed
We wouldn’t have Black Friday as we know it today if there were no Thanksgiving Day to precede it.
Credit President Abraham Lincoln for proclaiming in October 1863, “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” that the last Thursday of November would be “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
The last Thursday in November stood as Thanksgiving until 1939. (It was a five-Thursday month that year as it is this year). President Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to boost the Depression-era economy by extending the Christmas holiday shopping season, moved it to the second-to-last Thursday. As Time magazine reports, in 1941, he relented to congressional pressure and signed a bill resetting Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November, no matter how many Thursdays the month has.
A gold scheme, ‘Black Friday’ and a sullied president
In September 1869, two unscrupulous railroad financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, schemed to corner the gold market. Their plan: Use political connections to the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant to keep government gold off the market while they drove up the price, which was languishing at $130 an ounce. They figured they would sell their gold to the government later at a higher price.
They launched a gold-buying frenzy, pushing the price above $160. However, Grant caught on to the scheme. And, on what would be dubbed “Black Friday,” Sept, 24, 1869, Grant foiled the plot by ordering the sale of $4 million of government gold. When news of Grant’s order reached gold traders in New York, the precious metal’s price fell back to $133 in just minutes. Panic ensued.
“Every gold and stock broker wore a pallid face,” reported The Sun newspaper in New York. “Moneyed men rushed about the street insane; some of them were literally made insane.”
Stock prices fell 20 percent; crops for export plummeted more than 50 percent; several brokerages went bankrupt; and the national economy suffered for months, The New York Times said.
The ordeal tarnished the Grant administration, but Gould and Fisk escaped punishment.
‘Barbarous butchery of prices’ begins
By the 1890s, stores began to advertise “Black Friday” sales, but they weren’t tied to the day after Thanksgiving.
One such sale event did commemorate the 1869 gold scandal, though. Under the headline “Black Friday,” the People’s Mammoth Installment House, an Omaha, Nebraska, furniture and appliance store, predicted in a full-page Omaha Daily Bee newspaper ad on Nov. 1, 1891, that the “desperate and disgraceful scene” of the gold trading 22 years earlier would be repeated in just one aspect — “the barbarous butchery of prices” of its home furnishings.
The Hub, a Great Falls, Montana, clothing store, advertised on Jan. 3, 1891, a post-Christmas sale dubbed “our Black Friday Bargain Sale” to reduce its inventory of suits, overcoats and children’s wear. “Everything suitable for the holidays we have on hand will go at prices which you will not find elsewhere,” it proclaimed in The Tribune newspaper.
Other Black Friday sales were associated with the discounting of “black goods,” such as various black silks, cashmere and other clothes-making materials.
Christmas shopping season gets a boost
New York City retailer Macy’s helped establish the start of Christmas shopping at Thanksgiving when it launched what it then called its “Christmas Parade” on the November holiday in 1924. The event was designed to showcase Macy’s new Manhattan store — billed as “America’s Largest Department Store.” The inaugural Macy’s parade featured Mother Goose characters, animals from the Central Park Zoo and Kris Kringle.
Now called the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” the extravaganza is billed as the biggest parade in the world — featuring dozens of giant balloon characters, marching bands, celebrities, Santa Claus (of course) and much more — and heralds the start of the Christmas season in New York City. In 2016, some 3 million people attended — but the event has long been accessible to the people across the nation since its initial television debut in 1948.
The ‘Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis’ plague
After World War II, factory managers noticed absenteeism was spiking on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
In an article uncovered by Bonnie Taylor-Blake of the American Dialect Society, M.J. Murphy in a 1951 issue of the journal Factory Management and Maintenance writes about the problem plaguing managers:
“‘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.”
His suggestion: Bargain with workers to make it a paid holiday, as Glenn L. Martin, a Baltimore aircraft manufacturer, did.
Black Friday is not a federal holiday, but today 24 states observe it and many companies (not in the retail sector) give workers the day off.
Police latch on to ‘Black Friday’ but not as a term of endearment
Philadelphia police may have been the first to couple the term Black Friday and day-after-Thanksgiving shopping, perhaps as early as the 1950s.
A 1966 advertisement by stamp seller Martin L. Apfelbaum of Philadelphia, reproduced on the company’s blog, says as much:
“‘Black Friday’ is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. ‘Black Friday’ officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.”
In Philadelphia, the presence of fans arriving early for the traditional Army-Navy football game at Municipal Stadium, slated for the Saturday after Thanksgiving, would add to the shopping mayhem. Cops had to work 12-hour shifts.
Black Friday was said to be a phrase used by “all city police” in Rochester, New York, in a Dec. 1, 1961, story in the Shortsville-Manchester Enterprise newspaper, which described one woman’s survival of a crush of traffic and shoppers on one of the busiest shopping days of the year (the paper jokingly awarded her the Order of the Crumpled Shopping Bag).
Black Friday rebranding fail
The negative tone associated with phrase Black Friday irked Philadelphia business leaders.
In 1961, they gallantly tried a rebranding campaign, uncovered by word sleuth Bonnie Taylor-Blake, designed to get people to call the two days after Thanksgiving “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday.”
The effort failed despite claims that the media cooperated in spreading the news of “the beauty of Christmas-decorated downtown Philadelphia,” family day outings to department stores and cops keeping traffic flowing smoothly.
Black ink myth
Rather than fighting the term Black Friday, businesses in the early 1980s began spinning a positive explanation for the name.
The poor retailers, they claimed, used red ink in handwritten ledgers to post losses all year before Thanksgiving. Thanks to all the Black Friday shopping, they claimed, stores could finally report a profit, recorded in black ink. Hence — they want us to believe — they came up with the name Black Friday.
The “black ink theory” first appeared in the Nov. 28, 1981, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, attributing the declaration to Grace McFeeley of Cherry Hill Mall, according to Taylor-Blake.
But don’t imagine that retailers are truly struggling each year until Thanksgiving. While Black Friday is often the busiest shopping day of the year and holiday sales do make up 20 percent or more of retail industry’s annual total, according to the National Retail Federation, most successful retailers report profits all year long.
The evolution of doorbusters
Before they were associated with pre-dawn openings that lured shoppers to camp out at the front doors of stores, major retailers already touted “doorbusters.”
Thank James Cash Penney, says FirstMention.com. Penney’s (before J.C. was added to the name) coined the term on Jan. 13, 1949, in an ad in the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News.
Later in 1949, Philadelphia’s Gimbels department store urged people to “come in for these hard-to-beat door busters,” in a New York Times ad.
In a July 9, 1950, Los Angeles Times ad, Newberry’s, the five-and-dime chain, collapsed the two-word phrase down to the one-word “doorbuster,” which was later associated with the touting of Black Friday hot deals as stores opened earlier and earlier.
Black Midnight and Thanksgiving Day dashes
Retailers since have pushed Black Friday opening times earlier and earlier — and, by 2009, Kmart began opening at 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day itself.
The retailer reasoned that shoppers could avoid Black Friday traffic and return home in time for dinner with their families.
Toys R Us soon followed. And in 2011, Walmart launched its holiday sale kickoff at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day while Target, Best Buy, Macy’s and Kohl’s opened at midnight, leading to the phrase “Black Midnight.”
This expansion of labor-intensive shopping into workers’ holiday off generated a backlash. Now at least 50 stores say they will not open on Thanksgiving this year. Among them are BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, Sam’s Club, H&M, Marshalls and TJ Maxx, Office Depot and Office Max, The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Cost Plus World Market and Pier 1.
Beginning in 2015, REI, the outdoors adventure retailer that had never opened on Thanksgiving, began closing all of its stores on Black Friday, too, and launching instead its “#OptOutside” campaign. The retailer still pays its more than 12,000 employees but gives them the day off to enjoy the outdoors, while also inviting the public to share their outdoor adventures through social media.
(By the way, if you’re itching to shop for holiday deals, you can start shopping these Black Fridays right now.)
Black Friday mayhem
Thanks to some shoppers’ desperate competition for doorbuster deals, Black Friday has been associated with at least 10 deaths and 100 injuries since 2006, according to BlackFridayDeathCount.com, which lists news accounts of calamity associated with the day.
The first death ascribed to Black Friday was security worker Jdimytai Damour, 34, who was trampled in 2008 by a frenzied crowd busting through the front doors of a Walmart in Long Island, New York.
In 2016, at least three deaths were recorded during Black Friday sales:
- In Atlantic City, New Jersey, a resident was shot dead in a parking lot outside a Macy’s store that was open at 1 a.m.
- A Thanksgiving evening fight possibly over a parking space at a Reno, Nevada, Walmart ended in a fatal shooting.
- A good Samaritan trying to help a woman being beaten in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, was shot dead by her attacker.
Other incidents in the Black Friday Hall of Shame: A case in which a “competitive shopper” vying for a video game used pepper spray against 20 other people at a Walmart in California’s San Fernando Valley; a case in which bargain-seeking Target shoppers in South Charleston, West Virginia, ignored and stepped over a man who had collapsed (and later died in a hospital); and a melee that left 10 injured when 2,000 bargain hunters rushed to grab 500 gift-certificate-filled balloons dropped from the ceiling of the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, California.
Black Friday triggers gun sales
Black Friday has become the biggest day of the year for gun sales in recent years, the FBI told CNN.
The FBI knows because it has to do background checks for the sales.
“Traditionally, Black Friday is one of our busiest days for transaction volume,” FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer told CNN, which reported a record 185,345 checks on Black Friday 2015.
Handling those checks — averaging almost three per second, nearly three times the daily average — falls on the shoulders of 600 FBI and contract call center employees who will endure 17-hour workdays, CNN said.
An aside: Other ‘black’ days
Days that people nickname ‘Black’ often are associated with financial calamity or natural disasters rather than gift shopping. A sampling:
- Black Monday: The stock market collapsed on Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, when the Dow plunged a stunning 22.6 percent, the largest one-day percentage loss in history.
- Black Tuesday: The fourth and last day of the stock market crash of 1929 took place on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, marking the start of the Great Depression.
- Black Wednesday: The United Kingdom government had to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1992, as the currency fell beyond the required range relative to other member nations’ currencies.
- Black Thursday: The stock market crash of 1929 began on Thursday, Oct. 24, 1929. Also, the Panic of 1873 began with the failure of Philadelphia investment house of Jay Cooke, a major financier of expanding railroads, which had become overbuilt, on Thursday, Sept. 18, 1873.
- Black Saturday: Bushfires devastated six townships in Victoria, Australia, on Saturday, Feb. 7, 1992, and left at least 173 people dead.
- Black Sunday: The largest dust cloud ever in North America bore down Sunday, April 14, 1935, from the Dakotas all the way to Texas, shorting out cars, turning the sky darker than night and prompting predictions of Armageddon. The Dust Bowl period of the 1930s was filled with such storms, as severe wind erosion enabled by drought and improper farming methods damaged ecology and agriculture across the region.
Cyber Monday is born
Black Friday spawned Cyber Monday, a term coined in 2005 by shop.org, the National Retail Federation’s division for online sellers.
Back then, a spike was seen in online sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving because many consumers only had access to high-speed internet at work and would use it when they returned to the office after the holiday weekend.
Now Cyber Monday caters to people who don’t want to fight crowds in stores over the weekend or who just otherwise want to take advantage of online deals from the comfort of their homes.
Consumers spent $3.45 billion on Cyber Monday 2016, making it the biggest day in the history of U.S. e-commerce, Fortune magazine reported, citing figures from Adobe Digital Insights. Two years earlier, Cyber Monday spending barely cleared $2 billion.
And a spinoff: Small Business Saturday
As if Black Friday and Cyber Monday aren’t enough for one holiday season, other days have been created recently.
Small Business Saturday is Nov. 25 this year: In 2010, American Express began urging consumers to use the day to focus on local businesses.
And: Giving Tuesday
Giving Tuesday, the day after Cyber Monday each year (Nov. 28 this year) was begun in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York City and the United Nations Foundation to designate a day during the holiday season to focus on donating to charities.
In 2016, people from 98 nations donated $168 million and pledged thousands of hours of volunteer service on Giving Tuesday, USA Today reported.
And another chance to buy: Green Day
Green Day, the second Monday of December, is usually the second-largest online Christmas season sales day, behind Cyber Monday. It falls on Dec. 11 this year.
Online auction house eBay named the day after the greenback, an old nickname for U.S. currency, as it’s often a very profitable day for online sales when many online retailers queue up more deals. Walmart adds that Green Day offers online shoppers a second chance closer to the holiday to wrap up online purchases.
And then: Panic Saturday
Panic Saturday, the last weekend before Christmas, is often the time parents and other relatives finally decide what toys and games to buy the kids, says Advertising Age. Children often write their letters to Santa after Thanksgiving, finally inspiring those all-important gift ideas.
More toys than electronics are sold later in December along with other last-minute gift items, Advertising Age says.
Retailers encourage Black Friday readiness
Black Friday is ingrained in our collective consumer psyches, and retailers play to that.
They alert consumers, who often begin researching deals as early as October, that bargains are forthcoming. They leak their Black Friday ads filled with doorbuster deals weeks ahead of the sale date.
For example, Best Buy, in mid-October, posted about Black Friday 2017, saying it’s “the shopping event that has become a holiday tradition for many. An exciting time when families join forces and friends team up to conquer the sale and take advantage of the best Black Friday deals, sensational doorbusters and deep-discount tech deals.”
Walmart posted a section called “How to Win at Black Friday Shopping.” It urges us shoppers to make a plan, review Black Friday ads and emails, and decide what we want in advance.
Black Friday profits (in spite of markdowns)
Don’t worry — retailers make money despite Black Friday markdowns, accountants explain.
Take flat screen TVs, which drop in sales on store shelves as new models come out. Say a store normally sells 10 flat-screen TVs a day of a particular model for $1,000 each. The store acquired that TV from the manufacturer for $500. A normal day’s profit on that model: $5,000.
On Black Friday, the retailer marks its older flat screen TVs down to $750 and sells 50 in a single day. That’s $37,500 in sales with a $12,500 in profit.
The store gets rid of a product with diminishing value while offering what the public sees as a great deal.
A big retailer may also work with a TV manufacturer to make a TV with cheaper components or fewer connections so the store can sell at a bargain-sounding price point.
Another thing you should be aware of: Frequently retailers repeat Black Friday deals from previous years, and in a fair number of cases, the price is actually higher than in the past.
Black Friday spreads across the pond
Black Friday arrived in the United Kingdom in 2014 even though the country has no American-style Thanksgiving on the day before, the Mirror reports.
That didn’t stop the onslaught of American-style crowds thronging London stores and scuffling over deals, mainly on electronics.
Consumers now spend more on Britain’s Black Friday than on the traditional Boxing Day holiday sales, on Dec. 26, as retailers clamor instead to cash in before Christmas.
Black Friday: There’s an app (many, really) for that
For decades, newspaper inserts weighing down the Thanksgiving Day edition of your favorite local newspaper and TV ads were the primary ways of finding out where and when the bargains lay. Intrepid shoppers often waited outside newspaper printing plants the night before, waiting for the first copies hot off the presses.
Those who venture out on Black Friday now have tools to find bargains and perhaps skirt the worst crowds.
Your cellphone’s app store offers Black Friday apps that feature leaked and current ads from major retailers, deal hunters for comparing prices and alerts for price changes.
Google Maps added foot-traffic information, so when you want to find a store, it will also tell you when it’s busy.
On Black Friday, Google’s analysis says, store traffic peaks between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.; on Thanksgiving Day, department store visits peak between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Shopping malls, superstores and discount stores experience the highest traffic on the Saturday before Christmas; dollar stores are busiest on Christmas Eve, Google says.
Is Black Friday losing its luster?
Despite the changes in retailing over the years and consumer awareness that bargains may be had all year long, Black Friday (this year Nov. 24), and the whole Thanksgiving weekend, remain an important time for retailers.
More than half of respondents (52 percent) to Accenture’s annual Holiday Shopping Survey said they were less likely to shop on Black Friday this year than in years past, Business Insider reports. Half of respondents also said that they were less likely to shop on Thanksgiving, and 42 percent said they were less likely to shop on Cyber Monday.
The main reason: Bargain-shopping has become a year-round pursuit.
Still, in 2016, the National Retail Federation reported, 154 million consumers shopped in stores and online over Thanksgiving/Black Friday weekend, which was about 3 million more than in 2015. Those consumers spent about $290 each, compared with nearly $300 on the same weekend in 2015.
This year, the federation estimates, winter holiday spending of around $680 billion will make it the single largest retail spending time of the year, about eight times more than No. 2 back-to-school sales of $83.6 billion, and nearly 30 times the $23.6 billion spent for Mother’s Day.
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