What Does Black Friday Mean? Origin, History and Why It Starts the Shopping Season

On Black Friday, people all across the country will burn off their Thanksgiving 15 or work through hangovers in search of major discounts on TVs, video game consoles and Christmas gifts. The term "Black Friday" has existed for over 50 years, but most people likely only associate it with great retail deals, or the mobs of people rushing to try to take advantage of said deals.

The origins of the name "Black Friday" are often disputed, though. Dictionary.com explains that one of the earliest uses trace back to an 1869 gold market crash when financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk bought up a large amount of gold only for the price to drop shortly after. The term apparently caught on with factory owners in the 1950s, because so many workers would call out sick the day after Thanksgiving.

According to The New York Times, the phrase began to be associated with shopping in the 1960s, when Philadelphia police dubbed the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" due to traffic congestion and large crowds. Retailers tried to change the name to "Big Friday," because of the gloomy connotations that the original name has (what with the "Black Monday" of it all). When that didn't take, eventually, stores across the country decided to interpret the name as taking their ledger books from red to black (indicating that it was the day they moved out of their debt).

While the name only dates back about 60 years, the idea of retailers tying their holiday deals to the Friday after Thanksgiving predates that particular term by decades. According to a 2013 HuffPost article, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially moved Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday in November in 1939, due to pressure from the Retail Dry Goods Association. As Thanksgiving fell on November 30 that year, retailers thought that the shorter holiday shopping season would negatively impact revenue. Many Americans (and some retailers) disregarded the new date, though, and called it "Franksgiving" instead. In 1941, Congress passed a law saying that Thanksgiving would land on the fourth Thursday of the month.

While many people simply use the day to try to get a cheap TV from their local electronics aisle, the annual capitalist dash does sometimes result in tragedies. A website called "Black Friday Death Count" has compiled articles about people who've died and been injured each year on Black Friday since 2008. Some have been trampled in the run to take advantage of Black Friday deals, while some Black Fridays have been marked by shootings and car accidents. The website indicates that at least 12 people have died in Black Friday-related incidents and 117 have been injured.

With the COVID-19 pandemic this year, a number of shops have started Black Friday sales early. A recent survey and press release from the National Retail Federation indicated that over 40 percent of shoppers began their holiday spending early this year, with most people saying they're finding exactly what gifts they're seeking, or believe they will, in time for the holidays. Many stores are prioritizing health and safety in the pandemic, with most shoppers saying they've felt safe.

Black Friday
A man wearing a mask walks past a Black Friday sign displayed at Macy's Herald Square on November 20, 2020 in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty