Black Friday: History, Myths, and Facts

Daven Hiskey 24

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How the Black Friday Tradition Got Started

While it wasn’t called “Black Friday” until the 1960s, and then not popularly called such until the last two decades, retailers have been trying to push people to shop the Friday after Thanksgiving since the late 19th /early 20th century.  Around this time, it was very popular for various department stores, such as Macy’s and Eaton’s, to sponsor parades that would occur the day after Thanksgiving.  These parades would typically be a major part of Christmas advertising campaigns by these stores.  This, in turn, would ultimately result in a lot of people going shopping after the parades were over. Over time, this melded into a commonly accepted unwritten rule among most major department stores to hold off on their major Christmas advertising pushes until after Thanksgiving; specifically, to hold off until after these parades were over.

By the 1930s, the Friday after Thanksgiving had become the official start of the Christmas shopping season among the vast majority of retailers out there. However, this tradition ultimately resulted in retailers being unhappy with the length of the Christmas shopping season on Novembers where the last Thursday was the fifth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving at that time was always on the last Thursday of November). Thus, with the strong encouragement of lobbyists for various retailers, President Roosevelt, in 1939, decided to change the official date of Thanksgiving to be on the second to last Thursday in November, in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season as much as possible. This lasted two years before Congress was forced to stepped in, due to the controversy Roosevelt’s switch had caused. Their solution was a compromise between the two camps, setting Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November.

How the Friday After Thanksgiving Came to Be Known as “Black Friday”

The term “Black Friday” wasn’t coined to describe the day after Thanksgiving until the mid 1960s.  Even then, it wasn’t a popular term nationally until around the last twenty years.

In the 1980s, retailers, unhappy with the negative connotations of what appears to be the real origin of the term (see below), decided to start pushing that the actual origin was that most retailers operated in a financial loss for most of the year and Black Friday was named such because it was the day of the year when the retailers would finally see a profit, moving out of the red and into the black. This of course, simply isn’t true.  While there are some retailers that depend on the Christmas season’s profits to make a profit for the year, most retailers see profits every quarter based on the quarterly SEC filings of those major retailers.  There are also no references to this potential origin predating around the 1980s and there are numerous references to the following theory of the origin of the term “Black Friday” before that time.

The most likely origin, which is reasonably well documented, is from Philadelphia police officers, bus drivers, and taxi cab drivers who dreaded the day after Thanksgiving due to the traffic problems from the massive amount of people out and about.The earliest documented reference to this was in January 1966, written by Bonnie Taylor-Black of the American Dialect Society: “‘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.”  Over the next decade, more and more references can be found in various newspaper archives, primarily in the New England area, of this particular Friday being called “Black Friday” for this reason.

Black Friday Facts:

  • Nearly 135 million people go out to shop on Black Friday every year.
  • In 2010: 212million shoppers spent $39billion for an average spending amount of $365.34
  • In 2008, Jdimytai Damour, a Long Island Walmart temporary employee was trampled to death on Black Friday when shoppers at Green Acres Shopping Center, impatient with waiting for the store to open, pushed against the doors to try to get them to open.  Workers pushed back to try to keep the doors from breaking, but ultimately the masses won out and over 2000 people streamed in, trampling Damour.  The paramedics who arrived and tried to save Damour were also trampled and seriously injured by shoppers who apparently didn’t care that there was a dying man lying at the entrance of the store with paramedics trying to resuscitate him.  All total, five shoppers had to be hospitalized at that one location.
  • Shop.org executives came up with the bright idea for “Cyber Monday”, even though the Monday after Thanksgiving historically never previously saw any up-tick in online sales over any other day around that time, with online sales seeing their actual peak days between December 5th and December 15th.  This campaign has seen marginal success, but not enough for most online retailers to latch on to the idea.  Instead, there has been a big push lately for “Cyber Black Friday”, encouraging people to avoid the masses and stay home and shop online.  This campaign has been much more successful than Cyber Monday, with sales reaching as high as a half a billion dollars in 2009, which is over double what it was in 2008.

Black Friday Myths:

Myth: The Naming of Black Friday Came From a Stock Market Crash:

A theory that is sometimes spread about how “Black Friday” got its name, came from the stock market crash in late 1929 which kicked off the Great Depression.  In fact though, that event happened on a Tuesday, not a Friday.  The actual “Black Friday” stock market scare happened in 1869, was in September, and had to do with gold prices. So neither stock market crash had anything to do with shopping or the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Myth: Black Friday is the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year:

Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year. In fact, it’s typically not even in the top five, though has cracked the ranks a few times in recent years. The real biggest shopping day of the year is nearly always the Saturday before Christmas, excepting a few occasions where it typically then ends up being the Thursday or Friday before Christmas, when Christmas falls on a weekend day.  Thus, the procrastinators seem to outnumber the early birds in this respect. Besides people’s naturally tendency to procrastinate, this should not be a surprise as most people are simply trying to get specific great deals on Black Friday and aren’t tending to look to get all their Christmas shopping done in one day.  So while there might be a lot of people in the stores, most of them aren’t coming home with a lot of items, according to consumer reports.  On the other hand, the last Saturday before Christmas is the last convenient time for many shoppers to get their shopping done.

*While it may not be the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday still rakes in an amazing amount of money, typically bringing in $15-$20 billion worth of revenue each year for the last three years in the United States.

Myth: Cyber Monday is the Biggest Online Shopping Day of the Year:

Another myth online retailers would love for people to start believing is that the Monday following Black Friday, which is beginning to be known as “Cyber Monday”, is the busiest online shopping day of the year.  In fact, Cyber Monday historically doesn’t even make the top ten and before the term was coined and promoted, it wasn’t even typically in the top 30.  Most of the actual biggest online shopping days of the year tend to fall between December 5th and December 15th.  As someone who once owned a reasonably successful online store, I can attest to the fact that the online shopping days between around December 5th-ish to about the 20th, for my store, would see normal sales jump about fifteen times the normal volume per day on average, during that span; then typically tailing off a bit, but staying well above average until around January 5th, at which point sales tend to see their worst rates of the year until around the end of January or early February when things would begin to get back to normal.  The last two Cyber Monday’s I owned that store, I actually saw below average sale rates on that day.

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24 Comments »

  1. cassie January 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    WRONG black friday was named after the goddess frida, inwhich the towns people anguished so when she died she swore she’d come back every friday “frida” the 13th with 13 witches and cast out spells amongst the towns peoples crops…hence why people call it FRIDAY so theres no worry about it, its a friggen 100 and sumthin year old pagan story!

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven January 12, 2012 at 12:00 am - Reply

      @cassie: and your sources are?

    • Ethan December 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm - Reply

      I think you’re in the wrong part of the Internet, ma’am. The argument that you are introducing has nothing to do with Black Friday other than the origin of the name for the day of the week. The article is is talking about the term Black Friday came about for one of the biggest shopping days of the year, not how the names for one of the regular days of the week came to be. I’m going to need you to calm down, sit in the corner, and think about what you’ve done. For you obviously came here under wrong assumptions, thus introducing an irrelevant argument.

  2. Mike September 14, 2013 at 8:11 am - Reply

    Part of what’s missing here about “Cyber Monday” is that in the early days of internet shopping (say, the mid-late 1990s) most people only accessed the internet at work, not at home (I worked in an office that had separate phone lines for each desk and each computer had it’s own 56K modem to dial-in individually. We were on dial-up until late 1998.) As the Internet became ubiquitous and internet access in the home became more common in the 2000s, there was no reason to have to wait until Monday (when office workers were returning to work from Thanksgiving weekend) to shop online sales.

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