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The history of Black Friday

Nancy Koehn Nov 25, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Believe it or not, there did exist a time before Black Friday. Ahh, I remember when… OK, I actually don’t. But we decided a bit of history was in order.

Commentator Nancy Koehn tells us how it all got started.

Nancy Koehn: “Black Friday.” It is a name that conjures up visions of a financial collapse or perhaps a huge power outage. Hardly the stuff of retail hustle and bustle or large throngs of shoppers hunting and gathering.

The term itself has an interesting history. In the 1950s, some factory managers referred to the day after Thanksgiving as “black Friday” because so many workers called in sick. The day, noted one industrial magazine, was “a disease second only to the bubonic plague” in its effects on employees. In the early 1960s, Philadelphia cops used the term to describe the intense crowds of shoppers and traffic that poured into center city on the day after Thanksgiving. It was hardly a term of endearment. All the people and congestion made police work more difficult. As a sales manager at Gimbels said, watching a cop trying to deal with a group of jaywalkers, “the police think in terms of headaches that it gives them.”

Still, the term stuck. And by the mid 1970s, newspapers in and around Philadelphia used it to refer to the start of holiday shopping. But its usage continued to carry negative associations. Then in the 1980s, some enterprising merchants began to turn this around. They did so by pointing to all the “black ink” that showed up on balance sheets as a result of the day. From here, it was a short hop to the idea that “Black Friday” was the day when retailers historically came out of the red and went into the black by beginning to turn a profit.

In the last 30 years, the term “Black Friday” has spread, and the day has become an unofficial holiday — although not for most who work in retail. For them, the day has grown longer. And this year, “Black Friday” became “Black Thursday.” At Macy’s, Bealls, and Target, consumers started shopping at midnight on Thanksgiving Day. But Walmart lead the way. It opened its doors at 10 p.m. on the holiday. Who knows? At this rate, Thanksgiving might disappear altogether or the month of November will be called “Black November.”

Vigeland: Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School. Got a comment? Write to us.

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