a brief history of black friday (2/8)

Read first: an introduction to black friday (1/8)

The most commonly regurgitated story behind the Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers spent so much money on discounted merchandise in the stores. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin may sound official, but it is inaccurate.

The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as “joyous” as retailers want us to believe and many people are still unaware of it. Early in the 1950s, police officers in the city of Philadelphia used this term to describe the mayhem that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers poured into the city along with tourists who arrived for the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only were Philly cops not allowed to take the day off, but they would also have to work extra-long shifts in order to deal with the chaos due to additional crowds and traffic. Add to that, the woes of catching shoplifters who would take advantage of the craziness and confusion in stores to slip off with merchandise.

However, sometime in the late 1980s, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, which has pretty much stuck after that.

Over the years, stores started opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday, and now the most dedicated shoppers can head out right after finishing their Thanksgiving meals. In addition, the one-day sales bonanza has gradually morphed into a four-day event, and spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday. 

The occurrence of Black Friday and the ensuing profits have even propelled giant corporations to have retail-directed special annual holidays during the year. A good example of this is Amazon’s Prime Day that takes place all around the world on the same day. 

Read next: black friday all around the world (3/8)