How Did Black Friday Get Its Name?

Black Friday has evolved into a month-long stream of seasonal shopping deals, but how did it get its ominous sounding name?

Nov 22, 2023By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator
history of black friday

 

The term ‘Black Friday’ is now ingrained into the international consciousness, one which we most commonly associate with a flurry of winter deals and seasonal shopping in the buildup to Christmas day. Typically, Black Friday comes on the last Friday of November (the day after Thanksgiving and the first payday before Christmas), although it has now spiraled into a month-long event with offers flooding buyers’ inboxes and news feeds throughout November, and some even beginning in late October. But do you know how it got its name?

 

The actual term Black Friday has had numerous associations over the past century and a half, some of them a far cry from the positive marketing slogans we are bombarded with on a daily basis. We track the history of the term, and how it evolved into the capitalistic frenzy of today.

 

The First Black Friday: The 1869 Market Crash

Illustration of the market crash when the value of gold plummeted on Friday September 24th 1869.
Illustration of the market crash when the value of gold plummeted on Friday September 24th 1869.

 

Historically, the earliest use of the term Black Friday is often traced back to 1869, when an unprecedented New York market crash caused devastating ripple effects throughout the United States economy that lasted for decades. The catastrophic event was triggered by the reckless gambling of notorious bankers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who set up a risky and unethical strategy. Together they stored up a lump sum of American gold that they hoped to then sell on for a substantial profit, thus lining their own pockets.

 

On Friday September 24th, their risky conspiracy came apart at the seams, sending the US gold market into freefall, and leaving countless American brokers penniless. Inevitably, the consequences of their actions trickled into the wider US economy. Tabloids began referring to this gloomy day as ‘Black Friday’, a nod towards the darkness and dread that followed. 

 

Crowds and Violence During the 1950s and 1960s

Black Friday shoppers in Pittsburgh. Source: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
Black Friday shoppers in Pittsburgh. Source: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

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During the 1950s, the term Black Friday became widespread amongst police officers, particularly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. They used the term as a negative reference to the chaotic maelstrom as shoppers descended upon the city to catch the best deals of the holiday season the day after Thanksgiving. On top of the widespread High Street sales, the Army Navy game held on the Saturday also attracted visitors from far and wide. The ensuing maelstrom of huge, uncontrollable crowds quickly got out of hand, leading to traffic jams, car accidents, shoplifting and violence. All this left police officers facing the same day of the year with trepidation and dread.

 

Throngs of shoppers on Black Friday in New York City. Source: People Magazine
Throngs of shoppers on Black Friday in New York City. Source: People Magazine

 

By the 1960s the term Black Friday was widely in use across the US and beyond, conjuring up negative connotations of crowds, mayhem and violence. City merchants attempted to shift the naming of the day to ‘Big Friday’ in a bid to quell the negative associations with one of the commercial market’s most profitable times of year, but the new name never really caught on. 

 

Commercialism in the 1970s and 1980s

Black Friday advertising slogans aimed at enticing shoppers. Source: Primex
Black Friday advertising slogans aimed at enticing shoppers. Source: Primex

 

During the market boom of the 1970s and 1980s, profiteers sought ways of injecting the term Black Friday with more positive associations. It became refashioned as a commercial statement, denoting the supposed shift from shops operating in the ‘red’, or at a financial loss, to the ‘black’, or profit, due to the surge of shopping activity in the frenetic festive period as shoppers bought heavily discounted goods. It is true that businesses once used the term ‘red’ to loss, and ‘black’ to profit, but the connection between this terminology and Black Friday as we know it today is largely down to a series of clever marketing strategies.

 

Black Friday retailers now market the shopping experience throughout November.
Black Friday retailers now market the shopping experience throughout November.

 

Slashed deals from shops across the world drew crowds in from far and wide, and the date is now synonymous with Christmas shopping gone mad. As well as occupying the entire month of November, the day has now extended into a series of spin-offs including Small Business Saturday, Small Business Sunday, and Cyber Monday, all aimed at boosting the local and international economy. Luckily, online shopping now means the heavy crowds of decades past can now largely be avoided.

 

Nancy Koehn, historian and professor at Harvard Business School, argues that the term Black Friday as we know it today is a blend of references and terms, which tie in with our cultural history. She says, “there was no defining moment that made us call Black Friday ‘Black Friday.’ It’s really the evolution of language and definition, retail practices and consumers responding to that.”

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By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.