Black Friday has long signified the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season, but the tradition of lining up in the middle of the night to get a deal is starting to fade a bit as retailers are now pushing sales earlier and as more shoppers turn to the web.
Shopping has been a major part of the day after Thanksgiving since at least the Great Depression, says Lars Perner, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California.
“Of course things back then weren’t as commercialized as they are today,” Perner says.
But when did we start calling it Black Friday?
“We have to go back to the Philadelphia in the 1950s,” says Bonnie Taylor-Blake, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina and a self-proclaimed lover of words. As a member of the American dialect society, she uncovered the history of the term “Black Friday.”
“It was actually probably coined by a traffic cop or at least somebody in the Philadelphia Police Department,” she says.
People from all over came into the heart of the city for shopping and to see the Christmas parade and lights, says Taylor-Blake. Even more people came into town for the Army-Navy football game, which took place the Saturday after Thanksgiving, she says.
“Traffic cops had a really hard time dealing with crowds in Philadelphia,” she says. “Traffic cops were required to work 12-hour shifts. Nobody could have the day off. There was a lot of parking headaches. So some wag in the police department, kind of came up with this term as sort of a humorous pejorative.”
Taylor-Blake discovered the story in an old public relations newsletter with the help of librarians at the University of North Carolina. She says the article from 1961 was about how Philadelphia merchants wanted to rebrand Black Friday as Big Friday.
The effort failed.
She says in the late 1970s there was another attempt to give Black Friday a positive connotation — and it’s the one you’ve probably heard many times before. That explanation, she says, was that Black Friday marked the day that all merchants went into the black — as in the day they became profitable.
“That goes back to an old accounting practice where profits were recorded in black and losses for the day were recorded in red,” she says. “So the idea is Black Friday is suddenly a great shopping day and retailers have hit pay dirt, so to speak. That’s wrong. That’s an invented explanation.”
So what does Black Friday mean today?
Well, not as much as it use to, says Taylor-Blake. With the advent of online shopping and deals coming earlier and earlier in November, shoppers can get a bargain without joining a stampede.
CORRECTION: The broadcast version and an earlier web version of this story misidentified Bonnie Taylor-Blake as Bonnie Taylor-Black. The text has been corrected.
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