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Why Is It Called Black Friday, Anyway?

BY: Shannon Grilli | Nov 13, 2018

It's the middle of November: have you made out your Black Friday shopping list yet? If you're one of the countless people who plan on shopping the day after Thanksgiving, chances are you had a concrete bargain-hunting plan in place the moment those leaked store circulars showed up online. But in all your planning, did you ever stop to consider: why is it called Black Friday, anyway?

You may think you know the answer, but you'd be (well, mostly) wrong. In fact, we're willing to bet very few American shoppers really know much about this unofficial shopping holiday at all! And so, to clear up any misconceptions, we present you with this brief history of Black Friday. It's filled with factoids that you can use to entertain (annoy?) your friends and family when you're stuck waiting in those excruciatingly long checkout lines together. Take a captive audience wherever you can get it!

What Is Black Friday?

Before we delve into Black Friday's history, let's quickly address what Black Friday is, and also, what it isn't.

Black Friday is the familiar name given to the day after Thanksgiving, which is widely considered to be the official start of the holiday shopping season. It has, at times, been referred to as "the busiest shopping day of the year" and, also, the most profitable. But only the former is really true, and even that has only been accurate for the past 10 or 15 years or so, thanks, for the most part, to the promise of extensive discounts and unbelievable deals from participating retail stores.

But while the Black Friday phenomenon as we currently know it is only a little more than a decade old, the name goes back much further. Like, much, much further.

Why Is It Called Black Friday?

If you asked someone about Black Friday back in the 19th century, they would have assumed you were talking about the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. That's the first known use of the term in America, but the term wouldn't be co-opted as a label for the day after Thanksgiving until much later.

But before we get to that, we have to briefly look at exactly how Black Friday became the biggest shopping day of the year (nobody just gives you a snazzy nickname, you've got to earn it!).

We can, at least in part, thank another holiday tradition: the Thanksgiving Day parade. By the time Macy's hosted its first official parade in 1924, Turkey Day parades had already been popular for the better part of two decades and department stores loved them almost as much (or maybe more) as the spectators since it helped get everyone jazzed about holiday shopping. Back then, major retailers all had an unspoken pact not to start advertising holiday sales until the day after Thanksgiving, and this honorable agreement is what helped mark that Friday as the official start of the holiday shopping season.

Okay, But... Again... Why Is It Called Black Friday?

I'm getting there! I swear!

The term Black Friday was first used to describe the day after Thanksgiving sometime in the 1950s, when newspapers began reporting on a strange phenomenon: all across the country, in growing numbers, workers were calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving. Employers and media outlets began dubbing the day "Black Friday", and, eventually, the problem got so bad that most employers just decided to give everybody the day off. This may be "Black Friday's" first indirect link to the act of shopping—because a day off of work is a perfect time to take advantage of all those holidays deals, right?

Those happy, peppy people hitting the shops on their day off? They tend to create a traffic jam or two, and it's sometime in the 1960s that traffic cops begin using the term "Black Friday" to describe the nightmarish road conditions that awaited shoppers on their way to and from the stores. The name more or less sticks, but it's still only indirectly connected to shopping, which brings us to...

I Thought It Was Called "Black Friday" Because That's When Stores Get 'In The Black'?

Not really! But, here's why that's partially true:

By the time the 1980s came around, retailers weren't super happy about the negative image of "Black Friday" (the traffic! the traffic!), so they decided to give it a bit of an image makeover so that people would feel more positive about getting out there and spending all that holiday cash. No one really knows who first put forth the "red-to-black" profit margin story, but they do know that the idea spread like wildfire and with it came bigger marketing campaigns and bigger sales as retailers tried to capitalize on all those good feelings about spending.

While there's no real truth to the loss-to-profit myth, it IS true that by the early 2000s, Black Friday had become the busiest shopping day of the year. But that doesn't mean it's the most profitable. When it comes to actual sales volume, the week leading up to Christmas tends to be a bigger win for the retail industry.

So the truth is, when you line up for that new smartphone or that super-discounted flat-screen TV, you really aren't single-handedly saving your favorite retailers from financial ruin. But you still might be getting a great deal, and, depending on how much you love saving money, that could still be something to feel warm and fuzzy about.

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