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Where Did “Black Friday” Come From?

The day after Thanksgiving in the United States is one we all know as the unofficial beginning of the holiday shopping season. Retailers and shoppers alike prepare all year for the deep discounts and manic—sometimes dangerous—bargain hunting this day is known for.
But how did Black Friday get its name? And how did one day of shopping madness gain such a sinister moniker?

A Black Day

The qualifier “black” has been used throughout history to describe days on which calamitous events occurred.
In the United States, two Black Fridays were especially notable for their damage to the nation’s financial markets. The Panic of 1869, a failed attempt on September 24th of that year to corner the gold market, had ruinous effects on the economy overnight.
Perhaps the most notable Black Friday in financial history, however, was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. This tragedy marked the beginning of America’s Great Depression, a decade-long financial crisis that had severe national and global consequences.

Better Black Than Red

The color black in these cases was certainly congruous with the mood and outlook after these events occurred. However, the color black also has positive connotations in retail terminology.
To be “in the red” is a way of saying your business is carrying heavy debts or a negative revenue flow—signified in the early days of accounting when losses were recorded in financial records using red ink. Black ink, then, was used for the good news. More black ink in the ledgers meant more profitable transactions. If you were “in the black”, your business was booming.
magnifying glass on ledger tape
This accounting jargon supports the popular theory of how the day after Thanksgiving came to be known as the “Black Friday” we all know today. It was frequently the first day retailers began to show a profit after operating at an overall loss from January through the middle of November.

Earlier Definitions

But although reports of the term “Black Friday” as the day following Thanksgiving have been confirmed as early as 1951, its original meaning was different than the one we use today.
In some eastern US cities, Black Friday was known as the day factory workers most commonly called in sick, hoping for a four-day weekend following Thanksgiving. This resulted in a pronounced shortage of labor and lost profits. A black day for management indeed.
In Philadelphia in the early ‘50s, the two days following Thanksgiving became cynically known to locals as Black Friday and Black Saturday. Not only did these two days bring huge crowds and traffic congestion that accompanied the beginning of holiday shopping season, they also coincided with some of the city’s major annual civic and sporting events, making the entire weekend a nightmare for overworked police and bus drivers.

The Growth of Black Friday and the Birth of Cyber Monday

Retailers, however, began to bristle at the negative connotations the term brought to holiday shopping and in the early 1980’s, they began to promote its more positive—if not entirely verifiable—history.
While the more shopper-friendly Black Friday concept began to catch on over the next few decades, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the day after Thanksgiving officially became the busiest shopping day of the year (a title previously held by the Saturday before Christmas).

Since then, Black Friday has become a multi-day event, encompassing the entire post-Thanksgiving weekend and ending with “Cyber Monday”, a version of Black Friday for online retailers which is giving its weekend cohort some stiff competition: (from Investopedia.com)
Cyber Monday is quickly catching up to Black Friday. According to statistics from the National Retail Federation, sales on Black Friday weekend (Thursday to Sunday) have fallen consistently since 2012. Even so, during the 2015 Black Friday weekend, 151 million Americans either took the trip stores or shopped online, spending nearly $300 on average per person, according to the NRF. And 72.8% of those who shopped in stores made their purchases on Black Friday itself.”

Opting Out is the New Black

The popularity of Black Friday hasn’t been all about shopping.
Some organizations are now using the notoriety of the yearly event to highlight other means of spending your time and money. #GivingTuesday encourages a holiday-focused movement of charitable giving instead of (or in addition to) shopping ‘til you drop.
Retailers aren’t all on board with the madness either. One noteworthy example is the outdoor sporting goods retailer REI, which, as part of their #OptOutside campaign, has famously decided to bow out of Black Friday altogether. Store employees are given the day off and customers are encouraged to instead take time to enjoy the great outdoors. Consumer Watch listed other major retailers opting out in 2016 — will they continue the trend in 2017?
The global Buy Nothing Day movement also offers an anti-consumerism day of protest which has gained popularity in North America and parts of Europe and is held on (or sometimes the day after) Black Friday itself.  

Black Friday & Cyber Monday will return to Namecheap in 2020 — in the meantime, look at our current promotions page for all our best deals.

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Basil Harris avatar

Basil Harris

Basil is a senior content writer for Namecheap, Inc. Based in Seattle, he works as a freelance copywriter, actor, teacher, performance and presentation coach, and musician. Against the advice of his friends, children, and personal physician, he’s recently become obsessed with skateboarding and personal electronic transportation gadgets. More articles written by Basil.

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