Black Friday’s Unlikely History

Black Friday just sort of evolved when we weren’t looking. No grand proclamation created the day. That last Friday in November doesn’t mark any generational event.

But, people still search for the story behind Black Friday, something interesting or controversial. They ask the internet questions like:

  • How long has Black Friday existed?
  • Does Black Friday have ties to the slave trade?
  • Did Black Friday get its name because accountants use black ink to record profits?

In this article, we’ll look at where Black Friday came from, when it first emerged, and why people keep bringing up the city of Philadelphia in all these Black Friday stories.

Let’s start with the earliest mentions of Black Friday:

Black Friday’s earliest history

Black Friday 1869
Scene in the New York Gold room during the excitement of September 24th, 1869 (LoC/PD)

Black Friday’s ties with commerce and money go deep. In 1869, just six years after President Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday in the United States, our ancestors were already talking about Black Friday.

But, that Black Friday had nothing to do with Thanksgiving. That first Black Friday fell in September–September 24, 1869.

Friday, September 24, 1869, marked the day that gold markets tumbled in the post-Civil War US, ruining many investors and speculators. Corruption brought on the crash when two New York City financiers, Jay Gould and “Diamond Jim” Fisk, sought to corner the gold market.

Their plan was simple supply-and-demand, a plot hatched from reading the first chapter of any intro Economics course:

  • Buy all the gold until there was very little left.
  • Gold prices would rise.
  • Then they’d sell all the gold back at higher prices.

But, there was one problem. In the 19th century, the federal government bought and sold gold to control the value of the US dollar. When the US government sold gold, supply went up, and the price of gold came down. Gould and Fisk couldn’t control that.

But, Jay Gould and Diamond Jim had a plan. There’s a reason that history still remembers them among the 19th century’s greatest robber barons.

Jay Gould and Diamond Jim aimed high. They recruited fellow financier Abel Corbin. He happened to be married to President Grant’s sister. Corbin used his connections to find out when the government would sell gold.

Their plan worked for a while. The financiers bought up all the gold they could. The price of gold rose. They had Corbin to alert them before the government flooded the market, bringing the price of gold back down.

But, word got back to President Grant. Then, Grant sold $4 million of the government’s gold. The market panicked, and the price of gold came tumbling down.

Like most financial schemes, the followers got hit the hardest. Many investors and speculators who bought the gold at high prices were left with big losses. Those who borrowed money to buy the gold faced bankruptcy.

And what of Jay Gould and Diamond Jim? Gould emerged from history’s first Black Friday just fine. He sold his gold before prices fell out and was controlling the Union Pacific Railroad a few years later. Diamond Jim was less lucky. He was shot dead on a New York City street in 1872 when he got in an argument over money and a Broadway showgirl.

But, what about our Black Friday?

Where did our Black Friday start?

Let’s start with where our Black Friday didn’t start.

Myth #1: Black Friday’s Ties to Slavery: One popular myth ties Black Friday to the pre-Civil War US South. The story goes that, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, slave traders sold slaves at a discounted price so that plantations could use their help in getting ready for winter.

It’s an interesting theory regarding the story of Black Friday. But, it’s not true. Black Friday did not begin with the selling of slaves.

Myth #2: Accountants Created Black Friday: Black Friday also didn’t get its start with accountants. In accounting and finance, tradition dictates that profits get recorded in black ink while losses go in red. While Black Friday brings big money to retailers, it’s just a convenient connection. Black Friday wasn’t born on the tip of an accountant’s pencil.

Black Friday wasn’t born on the tip of an accountant’s pencil.

Black Friday and its Philadelphia Roots

Black Friday started in Philadelphia in the 1950s.

The Philadelphia police came up with the name “Black Friday” when they were describing the crowds of people that flocked into the city every Friday after Thanksgiving. Some came for the Army-Navy football game. Others came in to shop on their day off. And others were just sightseeing tourists.

So many people came to Philly that the police couldn’t get time off. Most even had to work overtime to manage the crowds, the traffic, and … even the shoplifting. Among themselves, they soon named the day Black Friday.

Over time, the name stuck. Black Friday evolved from a day police officers couldn’t take off to a day when Philly was packed with shoppers. Eventually, Black Friday meant the deals that shops offered to attract even more shoppers.

The name spread to nearby cities and across the nation. Over time, Black Friday sales grew. Opening hours got earlier and earlier. And Black Friday became part of American culture.

Black Friday in the Merrimack Valley

Shoppers at Boston's Jordan Marsh around 1910
The Shopping Hour, Washington Street, Boston, MA (Source: Wikimedia Commons/PD)

Even before Black Friday got its name, stores watched the calendar with glee as Thanksgiving came and went. Employees have long taken the Friday following Thanksgiving off. And retailers have long used that day to lure them into their stores.

In 1940, President Roosevelt even moved up Thanksgiving to the third week of November to extend the holiday shopping season and give retailers a boost.

But, it took a long time for Black Friday to actually get a name. It wasn’t until the 1950s that people started calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday.” From there, it crept across the mid-Atlantic region and the country.

In the Merrimack Valley, Black Friday just kind of emerged over time as retailers warmed up to the idea of promoting big sales with a name.

In the Nashua Telegraph, columnist Jennifer Horn wrote in 2002, “Thanksgiving … has become little more than a gluttonous passage of time while we wait for Black Friday to commence.”

Clearly, the name was already well known by then and many sources point to the late 1980s and early 1990s as the time when the idea of Black Friday starting getting traction. In 1985, a Philadelphia Inquirer story pointed out that shoppers in LA and Cincinnati still didn’t recognize the name.

Like many traditions, the exact date when Black Friday first came to New England seems lost to time even if New Englanders were already shopping on Black Friday long before the day got its name.

Readers, when do you first remember hearing the term “Black Friday”? Comment below or on our Facebook page.

(Featured Photo Credit: New York Gold Room bulletin board on Black Friday, Sept. 24, 1869, via LoC/PD)

One thought on “Black Friday’s Unlikely History

  1. As a Co-op student from Northeastern University, I was employed at Kennedy’s clothing store, 32 Summer Street. I first heard the term “Black Friday” in 1961 while setting up the sales floor the day before Thanksgiving in anticipation of huge crowd to come on Black Friday. And they did come!

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