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Nov 22, 2023

The origins of Black Friday: where the chaos began

Dayna Lang
Author Dayna Lang

Over the years, the Friday after American Thanksgiving has grown to become an exciting, or nightmarish, spectacle (depending on personal experience). 

Black Friday is one of the biggest retail events of the year, with the related ad campaigns and sales promotions garnering as much importance for the ad industry as the retail sector. 

Massive crowds and seemingly unbelievable deals mark the holiday as shoppers line up for hours before piling into major department stores and malls in order to snag the best deal on their first holiday purchases of the year. 

And the mayhem is only growing; according to NRF, “the daily volume for shopping-related searches containing “deals” grew by over 2,300% last year during the week of Black Friday and Cyber Monday compared with September.” In fact, e-commerce has shown a rapid growth this past decade, with Black Friday 2023 further exemplifying how online shopping is critical for retail and advertisers.

NRF also found that “a record 196.7 million consumers shopped over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend last year,” cementing it as one of the biggest shopping weekends of the entire year, and one that is continuing to gain popularity. 

With retail remaining a reliable, and steady industry even in times of economic downturn, Black Friday is a critical day for advertisers across the country. So where did this post-Thanksgiving tradition come from?


Why is it called Black Friday? 

Black Friday originated as a term signaling financial disaster in the stock market. In 1869, the first “Black Friday” swept across Wall Street when Jay Gould, a financier, alongside railway businessman James Fisk, failed to corner the gold market. This led to widespread financial panic and the market collapsed. 

Then, 60 years later, on October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday took place, signaling the start of the Great Depression. While the day of the week may have changed, the use of the word “black” to represent financial distress and failure remains the same. 

So how did “black” go from representing stock market crashes to representing the biggest shopping day of the year? 

It starts with the use of the word “black”. Since cultural disaster or misfortune were often represented by black, the color quickly became a colloquial term to describe the chaos of the first holiday shopping weekend of the year. 

How this came to be is hotly debated. One theory is that common usage of Black Friday started in the early 1960s, by police officers in Philadelphia who took up the phrase as a way to describe the crowds and mayhem they encountered each year. 

The other most commonly believed theory is that the phrase came to popularity in the 1950s, when factory managers started calling the Friday after Thanksgiving Black Friday, since the number of false sick-days created chaos in the workplace. 

Whichever of these two theories is true, what is known for certain is that Black Friday has been marked as a day of chaos since its first conception. 


The origins of Black Friday sales

You might be wondering: “when did Black Friday shopping become popular?”. In the early 1960s, it became popular for suburbanites to flock to the city after Thanksgiving celebrations in order to begin their holiday shopping and to attend the annual Army-Navy football game on the following Saturday. This resulted in crowds and created a headache for store-clerks and police officers alike, who had to deal with shoplifting, traffic jams, and overly long shifts. 

It didn’t take long for retailers to notice this pattern of behavior and start to take advantage of spend-ready customers by offering deals, attracting them away from the competition. Since then, the shopping holiday has only continued to grow in popularity as the retail sales have gotten better and as more stores join in on the action. 

By the 1980’s, Black Friday started to be associated with a positive boost in retail sales nationwide. This is also when retailers began to use a red-to-black profit narrative in order to push their sales even further. By describing Black Friday as the day stores began to turn a profit for the year, retailers spun a relatable story, attracting the sympathy of shoppers. 

Since then, the advent of e-commerce has resulted in even greater sales during late November. Cyber Monday has grown to become almost as big a sales day as Black Friday itself and in response to the overspending, charitable organizations have created Giving Tuesday, encouraging shoppers to share the wealth with worthy causes ahead of the holiday season. 

Today, Black Friday signals the start of the holiday shopping season, and arguably the most important time of year for both retailers and advertisers alike. Each year, the shopping mayhem grows, as do the ad budgets (Check out some of picks for the best Black Friday ads for 2023 and 2022). It will be interesting to see just how far the day’s growth expands before consumer spending plateaus. But one thing is certain before it does, shopping centers are bound to get even more crowded and even more chaotic.  



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