Nov 21, 20189 min read

The Not-So-Smoooth Story Behind Black Friday.

Kristian Borglund headshot

by Kristian Borglund

Black Friday and Cyber Monday may seem like a dream as you fix your eyes on the sales dashboard, enjoying watching the orders tick in. But the story that ultimately led to this shopping extravaganza is pretty confusing – and intriguing – lined with myths, false memes about slaves being sold, and frustrated policemen.

Nowadays, everyone has heard about Black Friday, the intense annual sales day that follows Thanksgiving Thursday. Three days later comes Cyber Monday, which in 2017 became the largest online shopping day in US history. Together they create the perfect formula: a rush of shoppers high on adrenaline and ready to buy – at least in much of the western world.

For merchants, “Black Friday” is synonymous with kickstarting the Christmas season by offering great deals and having products fly off the shelves, but it took a while to develop into this frenzy. And the name Black Friday hasn’t always been that popular among retailers.  We’ll come back to why.

The first recorded use of the term Black Friday

The first recorded use of the term Black Friday was in the 1800’s. It was applied to describe the depressing day of September 24, 1869, when the stock market crashed and commodity prices plummeted by 50 percent.

It sure was a black event. The crash was caused by two ruthless Wall Street speculators, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who had bought up as much of the nation’s gold as they could, hoping to drive the price sky-high and then sell it and make a fortune.

What happened gave fame to the term Black Friday, but it’s not in any way connected to the Friday we talk about nowadays – or what it stands for.

Yes, it’s true that prices dropped considerably and there were probably people taking advantage of the situation by finding a good deal or two. But that was due to speculation, not a deliberate move by retailers, and national suffering ensued.

From this point forward, though, “Black Friday” was a familiar term.

So how did the Friday right after Thanksgiving turn into Black Friday?

There are many myths.

As late as 2014 there was a meme claiming that Black Friday stemmed from slavery: “It was the was the day after Thanksgiving when slave traders would sell slaves for a discount to assist plantation owners with more helpers for the upcoming winter (for cutting and stacking firewood, winterproofing, etc)”.

That myth was busted by in 2015.

The most popular story among merchants goes like this: Black Friday refers to the turning point of the year when merchants finally see black numbers in their accounting books, after losing money during the year. When accounting records were kept by hand, red ink was used to indicate a loss, and black a profit. That explanation makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, the day following Thanksgiving Thursday is the kickstart of the Christmas shopping season, opening the floodgates to sales that can compensate for a typically slower January-November. This has been the case since the start of the modern Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924 (since then parades celebrating Thanksgiving often include an appearance by Santa at the end of the parade, with the idea that ‘Santa has arrived’).

But upon closer examination, this red-to-black ink story doesn’t hold up either. Why? Because it only dates back to 1981, while there is clear historical evidence that “Black Friday” was used twenty years before that in Philadelphia to refer to the Friday after Thanksgiving which indicated the start of Christmas season.

Black Fridays in Philadelphia

The traffic police squad in Philadelphia used the term “Black Friday” to call out the traffic chaos that occurred annually in Center City the Friday after Thanksgiving. The schools were closed, and all the kids wanted to go see Santa Claus taking his place in his chair at the department stores.

The streets were jammed. Not only was the Christmas parade happening, but people were also driving in to see a popular Army-Navy American football game. For the policemen on duty it sure was a black Friday.

“Even the police band was ordered to Center City. It was not unusual to see a trombone player directing traffic,” recalls Philadelphia Bulletin reporter Joseph P. Barrett in a 1994 article, according to Snopes .

He put together a front-page story describing the chaos.

“We appropriated the police term ‘Black Friday’ to describe the terrible traffic conditions. We used it year after year. Then television picked it up.”

No wonder merchants wanted to promote “Big Friday” and take the attention away from it being a troublesome day. Well, it didn’t stick too well, did it?

1980’s: Black Friday was reinvented for the purpose of marketing

It would be many more years before Black Friday was used for marketing purposes. Its modern meaning emerged in the 80’s – and maybe that’s when the red-to-black story was born, as an attempt to rebrand the meaning of the day. We don’t know. We can only guess. But spread it did, as retailers began to realize they could draw big crowds by offering large discounts and promoting the term Black Friday to create more buzz.

Its uptake grew steadily during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but it took more than a decade of Black Fridays in the US until the event spread internationally.

How Black Friday spread outside the US

After travelling across the border for many years to take advantage of Black Friday prices in the US, Canadian shoppers were offered Black Friday deals in their own country for the first time in 2008. Merchants did so to discourage them from spending all that money on Christmas shopping abroad.

That’s how Canada became the first country outside the US to catch the Black Friday bug. In Germany, Apple had tried to introduce the concept two years before, but that was just an isolated attempt that didn’t really come to anything.

Here’s how Black Friday took off in various different countries:

2010 – Norway, Brazil
2011 – Australia, Romania
2013 – UK, South Africa, Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand
2014 – Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Finland, France, Ireland
2015 – Spain, Netherlands
2016 – Poland, Greece, Ukraine, Belgium
2017 – Latvia

In the UK, Black Friday didn’t land too well at first. In the trade publication Retail Week one commentator labelled it “simply an Americanism, which doesn’t translate very well”. It didn’t help that the term had another meaning to the Brits. It was used by the National Health Service, referring to the day when emergency services activate contingency plans to cope with the increase in workload as people go out drinking on the last Friday before Christmas. However, once the initial scepticism towards the American phenomena had subsided, the Brits fully embraced it. 91 percent of UK retailers took part in Black Friday 2017.

While Black Friday has been sweeping into more and more countries over the last few years, it has been followed by a companion that hasn’t got as much attention, but now definitely deserves it:

Cyber Monday.

Showing up in the calendars three days behind, it’s been hiding in the shadows. It’s not first, doesn’t kick things off as loud as Black Friday, and applies exclusively to the online world of shopping. But Cyber Monday now brings in as much revenue for merchants – in many cases more – as Black Friday. In 2017 Cyber Monday sales reached a record $6.6 billion, making it the largest online shopping day in US history – even bigger than Black Friday.

How Cyber Monday came about

While Black Friday goes way back in history, Cyber Monday doesn’t – for obvious reasons.

Imagine it’s 2004. You are an American, and Black Friday has been a growing thing in the stores for several years now. But you don’t like the idea of spending hours and hours at crowded stores, getting frustrated about waiting in long lines, and risking getting into fights over the heavily discounted products (yes, many fights have been reported throughout the years related to Black Friday). You consider going online instead to do your shopping, but realise your home internet connection is way too slow. So you decide to wait until Monday when you are back at the office again. There you’ll have access to a high-speed internet connection. Sure, you could go window shopping, but battling that crowd? No… better to take care of it online.

Well, that’s basically how Cyber Monday started. People took advantage of all the offers available online after the Thanksgiving weekend once they got to work.

On November 28, 2005, a press release had the title “’Cyber Monday’ Quickly Becoming One of the Biggest Online Shopping Days of the Year”.

Back then, before it was natural to order anything and everything online, shoppers still needed encouragement, reports Cnet. Online stores began running their own big sales to compete with brick-and-mortar retailers. Could they ever have dreamed of how significant this day would become?


Don’t miss: The ultimate guide to creating the best deal for Black Friday