What Is the History of Black Friday?

The History of Black Friday Started Earlier Than You Think

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Image by Grace Kim © The Balance 2019

The history of Black Friday started much earlier than people may think. The day after Thanksgiving has been the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season since the late 19th century when President Abraham Lincoln designated the Thanksgiving holiday as the last Thursday in November.

The day after Thanksgiving wasn't called Black Friday then. The name was associated with Sept. 24, 1869. Two speculators, Jay Gould, and James Fisk created a boom-and-bust in gold prices. A stock market crash followed as prices fell 20%. The disruption in gold prices sent commodity prices plummeting 50%. Corruption in Tammany Hall allowed Gould and Fisk to escape without punishment.

In 1905, Canadian department store Eaton's began the first Thanksgiving Day parade by bringing Santa on a wagon through the streets of downtown Toronto. In 1913, eight live reindeer pulled Santa's "sleigh." By 1916, seven floats representing nursery rhyme characters joined Santa in the parade. 

In 1924, the Eaton's parade inspired Macy's Department Store to launch its famous Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. Macy's wanted to celebrate its success during the Roaring '20s. The parade boosted shopping for the following day. Retailers had a gentleman's agreement to wait until then before advertising holiday sales. 

In 1939, during the Great Depression, Thanksgiving happened to fall during the fifth week of November. Retailers warned they would go bankrupt because the holiday shopping season was too short. They petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the Thanksgiving holiday up to the fourth Thursday.

Unfortunately, by this time it was late October. Most people had already made their plans. Some were so upset that they called the holiday "Franksgiving" instead. Only 25 states followed FDR's move. Texas and Colorado celebrated two holidays, which forced some companies to give their employees an extra day off.

In 1941, Congress ended the confusion. It passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November no matter what. 

In the 1950s, people began calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving, essentially giving themselves a four-day weekend. Since stores were open, as were most businesses, those playing hooky could also get a head start on their holiday shopping. That’s as long as the boss didn't see them. Rather than try to determine whose pay should be cut, and who was legitimately sick, many businesses started adding that day as another paid holiday. 

In 1966, the Black Friday name became famous in print. That's when a story appeared in an ad in The American Philatelist, a stamp collectors' magazine.  The Philadelphia Police Department used the name to describe the traffic jams and crowding in the downtown stores.

In 2014, an internet meme created a myth about Black Friday and slaves. It falsely claimed slave traders gave discounts at auctions on the day after Thanksgiving. 

Black Friday Sales History

Historically, shoppers did half their holiday shopping on Black Friday. The holiday season consists of November and December, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

  • In 2008, holiday sales fell 4.6% from the prior year. That's the first time sales dropped since the NRF began tracking in 1992. Sales typically rose 3.4% each year.
  • In 2009, sales increased by 0.3%. Shoppers spent $373 each on Black Friday. That's more than half of the $673 each spent during the entire 2009 holiday season.
  • Holiday sales rebounded 5.2% in 2010, once the recession was safely over. Black Friday weekend sales were $45 billion.
  • In 2011, many stores opened on Thanksgiving evening for the first time. Those sales were included in Black Friday sales. They were $12.3 billion, up 2.3% from 2010. Overall holiday sales rose 4.6%. 
  • In 2013, combined online and store sales for the entire Black Friday weekend were $57.4 million. It was lower than the $60 million spent in 2012. Many shoppers took advantage of online sales that began in early November. Others waited for bigger discounts later in the shopping season. The NRF stopped giving sales estimates for Black Friday in 2013. Instead, it reported on sales for the holiday season.

Article Sources

  1. Abraham Lincoln Online. "Proclamation of Thanksgiving." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  2. History.com. "The 'Black Friday' Gold Scandal." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  3. The University of Toronto. "The Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade and the Making of a Metropolitan Spectacle, 1905–1982." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  4. Library of Congress. "Thanksgiving Timeline, 1541-2001." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  5. The Center for Legislative Archives. "Congress Establishes Thanksgiving." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  6. History.com. "A Visual History of Black Friday: From Financial Crash to Shopping Mania." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  7. Listserv.Linguistlist.org. "The American Philatelist: Philadelphia's 'Black Friday." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  8. Snopes. "How Did ‘Black Friday’ Get Its Name?" Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  9. National Retail Federation. "NRF Consumer Survey Points to Busy Holiday Season." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.

  10. National Retail Federation. "NRF Forecasts Holiday Sales to Increase Between 3.6 and 4 Percent." Accessed Dec. 23, 2019.