Black Friday seems like a strange term for a generally fun day devoted to scoring some sweet deals. However, the term as we know it doesn't describe any emotions about the Friday after Thanksgiving. It's strictly business.
Black Friday is actually short for the phrase "in the black," which is an accounting term referring to when businesses turn a profit. These days, major retailers open their doors early, seemingly offer crazy-low prices and advertise special promotions in order to attract as many shoppers as possible so they can rack up some last-minute sales before the end of the year.
But believe it or not, Black Friday didn't always exist. In fact, it is a relatively recent phenomenon, whose name actually has much darker origins.
The term Black Friday traditionally had a negative connotation, as one might expect. One of the earliest uses of the phrase in American history was to refer to the collapse of the United States gold market on Sept. 24, 1869. The "Black ___day" phrasing has also traditionally been used to refer to stock market crashes, such as Black Tuesday on Oct. 29, 1929 and Black Monday on Oct. 19. 1987.
Black Friday as it pertains to the holiday season seems to have originated in the 1950s when some factory managers referred to the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday" because so many employees called in sick. However, many people seem to agree that the phrase originated in Philadelphia before finding nationwide popularity. The term was used rather pejoratively starting in the 1950s and 1960s to refer to the crowds and traffic in the city as a result of the annual Army-Navy football game played during Thanksgiving weekend. Around this time, the Philadelphia Police Department, along with local retail workers, also used the phrase to refer to the hordes of people getting a jumpstart on their holiday shopping that weekend, which was a scene of general unpleasantness. Buses were crowded, people weren't on their best behavior and shoplifters stole merchandise. Philadelphia police officers and retail employees loved Black Friday back then probably as much as they do now, which is probably not at all.
Some Philadelphians didn't like the negative connotation of the phrase Black Friday and attempted to change the term to "Big Friday," a nice way to describe the chaos, for fear that the name would deter people from going downtown to shop. However, this new name didn't catch on, and instead the name Black Friday spread to other cities and states throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Still, retailers found a way to put a positive spin on Black Friday, gradually promoting the idea that the name means going from operating at a loss in the red into the black, turning a profit for stores. This new meaning soon stuck, and lo and behold, the supposed biggest shopping day of the year that we now know and love (loathe?) was born.
So Black Friday as we know it is basically just the result of some smart rebranding by retailers. Well, that sounds about right.
Check out more of our Black Friday stories here.