Why Is Black Friday Called Black Friday?

How Black Friday Got Its Name

Image shows a timeline. Text reads: "Thanksgiving and black friday history: late 19th century–president lincoln makes the thanksgiving holiday official. 1905–Canadian store hosts the first thanksgiving parade; 1924–Macy's launches its thanksgiving day parade; 1950s–People began calling in sick the day after thanksgiving so they could shop; 1966–The holiday term 'black friday' was first used in print"

Image by Grace Kim © The Balance 2019

The day after Thanksgiving has been the unofficial beginning of the holiday season since the late 19th century when President Abraham Lincoln designated the Thanksgiving holiday as the last Thursday in November. But the day didn't earn the name "Black Friday" until much later.

How Did Black Friday Get Its Name?

With all the shopping activity that takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving, the day became one of the most profitable days of the year for retailers and businesses. Because accountants use black to signify profit when recording each day's book entries (and red to indicate a loss), the day became known as Black Friday—or the day when retailers see positive earnings and profits "in the black."

So, Black Friday is now known as a profitable Friday in the retail industry and the rest of the economy. That's because retail and consumer spending drive almost 70% of U.S. gross domestic product. Retailers adopted the name to reflect their success. To encourage more people to shop, retailers began to offer deep discounts only available on that day.

Shopping on Black Friday

Black Friday is now known as a day when consumers can save big money on a variety of items, from appliances to shoes. Over the years, the amount spent on Black Friday has increased, with the total holiday shopping season of November and December seeing billions of dollars spent. In 2002, shoppers spent a total of $416.4 billion on holiday shopping. By 2019, that number was up 75%, to $730.2 billion.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), Black Friday 2019 saw 84.2 million shopping in stores and 93.2 million shopping online, spending an average of $361.90 over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

With the holiday season amounting to almost 20% or more of annual sales for many retailers, it's no wonder Black Friday is known as a big shopping day for consumers and earning day for businesses. However, it wasn't always tied to spending and making money.

Black Friday Throughout History

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 as a way to celebrate its success during the Roaring '20s. The parade boosted shopping for the following day, and retailers developed 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, and Roosevelt complied.

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 passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November no matter what.

In the 1950s, people began calling in sick on 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. 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 term "Black Friday" name became famous in print. A story appeared in an ad in The American Philatelist, a stamp collectors' magazine, after the Philadelphia Police Department had used the name to describe the shopping chaos at downtown stores.

At first, retailers didn't appreciate the negative connotation associated with a "Black" day of the week. In fact, "Black Friday" was first associated with Friday, 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.

Another dark day, Black Thursday, occurred on Oct. 24, 1929. It was the day that signaled the start of the Great Depression. It was followed the next week by Black Tuesday. On that day, the stock market lost 12% despite attempts by major investors to support stock prices.

Despite the negative connotations of the name, however, "Black Friday" endured into the frenzied spectacle that it is today.

Key Takeaways

  • Black Friday is the day of the year when retailers and businesses often see their earnings turn positive, putting their profits "in the black" in their accounting books.
  • Throughout history, Black Friday evolved from simply the day after Thanksgiving to one known for deep discounts and the start of the holiday shopping season.
  • Unfortunately, there has been chaos on Black Friday over the years, giving some a negative opinion of the day, such as that associated with Black Thursday or Black Tuesday.