Each year, as the holiday season approaches, news outlets are obliged to discuss "Black Friday," but rarely do they explore the question why is it called Black Friday? The Friday after Thanksgiving has traditionally been one of the most important shopping days of the year. Here’s a quick history of why the Friday after Thanksgiving is referred to as Black Friday.
Common wisdom holds that Black Friday refers to the phrase “in the black,” financial shorthand for “high profits.” But that term has held negative connotations in the past. Back when accountants used ledger books to keep track of a business’s finances, it was customary to use two colors of ink for easier legibility. Losses were noted with red ink, while profits were in black. Before long, this led to the phrases “in the red” for failing businesses, and the less common “in the black” for successful ventures. A common belief is that Black Friday refers to the highly profitable opening of the highly profitable holiday shopping season. But this is only partially correct.
The first usage of the term Black Friday, in reference to shopping, was in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper in 1966. It apparently originated with Philly police and store employees, who found the huge crowds and huge traffic jams to be a huge headache. The phrase caught on, but in the 1980s, some objected to the negative association with the holiday season and its accompanying profit margins. The connection to the happier phrase “in the black” was quickly noted, and soon became the prevailing opinion.
Long before 1966, however, the phrase Black Friday had been attached to disasters of one kind or another. In 1869, Black Friday was the day many American investors lost fortunes due to insider trading. The 1929 stock market crash was also referred to Black Tuesday. The term Black Friday has also been used to reference other Friday crises as well, including a devastating 1881 storm in Scotland, a disastrous World War II battle, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Black Friday is not always the busiest shopping day of the year, as many believe, but it is certainly one of the busiest. The effort to put a positive spin on the phrase may be commendable, but Black Friday shopping sales do bring out the darker side in some people. Near-riot situations have resulted from Black Friday sales. In 2008, a Wal-Mart employee was literally trampled to death by a heedless crowd. Similar incidents across America resulted in numerous injuries during the 2010 Christmas season, leading to speculation that the original, darker meaning of the phrase may once again be taking hold.