Five things you didn't know about the history of Black Friday

No, Black Friday's history isn't exactly positive. But it's also probably not what you think it is, either.
Cece McLeod, Avery Meder and Shae McLeod (from left to right) shop at Bath & Body Works during Black Friday at International Plaza in Tampa on Friday, November 24, 2017.  [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Cece McLeod, Avery Meder and Shae McLeod (from left to right) shop at Bath & Body Works during Black Friday at International Plaza in Tampa on Friday, November 24, 2017. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published November 21 2018
Updated November 22 2018

Before your turkey dinner even hits the table, retailers want you to be going over your holiday shopping list in your head.

It wasn't always that way. In fact, Black Friday as Americans know it today didn't truly start taking shape until the late 1980s.

So, what's the deal with America's deals-centered shopping holiday and where did it even come from? Let's break it down with some facts.

1. The first "Black Friday" was in 1869 and had nothing to do with holidays or even shopping.

The first popular use of the word "Black Friday" was related to a financial panic. To blame? Two greedy Wall Street types who wanted to corner the gold market. Their idea was to buy a lot of gold, drive up its price, and then sell it off for major profits.

The plan unraveled and the price of gold plummeted within minutes on Sept. 24, 1896, a Friday. The stock market went into free-fall, which caused a financial panic across America. The U.S. economy nearly collapsed. So, the term wasn't much too favorable an expression.

2. When Black Friday came back 70 years later, it started to kind of have something to do with retail.

By 1961, the term Black Friday had caught on in Philadelphia, according to Sarah Pruitt, a historian for who explains the phrase's complicated past like this: In the 1950s, police used "Black Friday" to describe chaos on the day after Thanksgiving. The cause, however, had more to do with football.

Suburban shoppers and tourists poured into the streets of Philly ahead of the Army-Navy football game held every Saturday after Thanksgiving. Police had to work extra shifts to handle the influx of traffic and people, and shoplifting became a concern. When the term started catching on to describe a post-holiday binge shopping day, shopkeepers tried to change the term to "Big Friday" as a positive spin. As you can guess, that didn’t take.

3. "Black Friday" certainly stuck.

It took roughly two decades, but by the late 1980s retailers at large had embraced Black Friday. There's the "old story" people share, the red and black spiel you've maybe heard. That it’s the day after Thanksgiving that many retailers move from operating in the red to running in the black, meaning they’re finally turning a profit for the year.

There’s truth to that — Black Friday is a huge shopping day for retailers and the holiday shopping season contributes a good bit to their bottom line. But that "red to black" narrative came after the phrase had already been used for several years.

(By the way, "Black Friday" doesn’t have anything with the slave trade — despite that piece of fake news circulating the last few years.)

4. Black Friday isn't even necessarily the biggest day of shopping or sales.

Black Friday is definitely a shopping draw and, to some, a family tradition. But sales can be even bigger come the Saturday before Christmas when there's a late surge of gift-getting. And really, the whole Black Friday weekend has become a shopping boon, not just one day.

Stores largely open after Thanksgiving dinner, close overnight, and then reopen for Black Friday morning with even more sales. Millions of shoppers are expected to hit the stores this weekend or shop deals online.

5. Like, seriously, millions and millions of people.

The National Retail Federation estimates 164 million people will shop Thanksgiving through Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Several Black Friday deals run all weekend at big retailers, too. According to the federation’s survey, 34 million people will hit the stores on turkey day. Black Friday will be the busiest, when 116 million people are expected to shop. Come Cyber Monday, 75 million people are predicted to take advantage of online deals.

Planning on hitting the stores yourself? Check out our Black Friday guide here.

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.