Iowa History
Published in

Iowa History

The Origins of Black Friday

Christmas shoppers buy presents at Younkers department store in Des Moines in December 1935. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

For decades, Black Friday has been the day when millions of Americans do some serious Christmas shopping.

But did you know how it got its name? It’s a dark and twisted history.

“The term ‘Black Friday’ was originally coined when the Panic of 1869 happened in the stock market,” State Curator Leo Landis said. “When two speculators tried to corner the market on gold, the stock market crashed by 20 percent and commodity sales plunged 50 percent. That’s when the term first emerged in the American lexicon.”

During the following decades, retailers co-opted the phrase to promote special sales but didn’t link it to the day after Thanksgiving.

An Omaha store called the People’s Mammoth Installment House placed a full-page advertisement in the Omaha Daily Bee on Nov. 1, 1891, promoting a Black Friday sale of various housewares. The sensationally written ad referenced the Panic of 1869 and proclaimed, in part:

“The people of the United States may thank Heaven that this year will witness no repetition of the awful scenes and fearful alarms of that memorable ‘Black Friday.’ But in other respects there will be similarities, prices of furniture will topple and fall. … We are fearfully and frightfully overstocked (and) have mowed down the price of every article in our store so low that it is virtually giving them away. For years to come this barbarous butchery of prices and values, this marvelous and merciless massacre of house furnishings goods, shall be known in the history of Omaha as ‘The People’s Black Friday Sale.’ ”

In Sioux City, T.S. Martin and Co. ran an ad in the Sioux City Journal on April 1, 1892, promoting “Another Black Friday” with sales on hosiery, laces, corsets, gloves and other items. “You will remember the great success of our Black Friday Sale a year ago,” the advertisement said. “Today we will repeat our Black Friday Sale, and we say it without fear of contradiction that today you can buy Black Goods, no matter what quantity or quality, at prices not to be equaled in the Northwest.”

The Davenport Republican carried an ad May 31, 1901, about Young and McCombs’ Black Friday sale: “We have named this sale ‘Black Friday Sale,’ as it will be a black Friday in name as well as in deed.”

Later, Americans started tying the phrase to tragic events, such as the Great Depression in 1929, riots at Warner Bros. studios in 1945, San Francisco’s protest of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Christmas shoppers check gift ideas at a Des Moines department store during December 1937. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

Meanwhile, retailers started promoting the day after Thanksgiving as the official start of the holiday shopping season:

● In 1924, Macy’s Department Store launched its famous Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City to boost holiday shopping.

● In 1939, retailers asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving Day up a week, from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday of the month, in order to lengthen the shopping season. But only 32 states followed the move, prompting many Americans to wonder which day they should celebrate.

● In 1941, Congress cleared up the confusion by making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November.

In the 1950s, references to financial and retail “Black Friday” events merged in Philadelphia and ushered in the modern-day usage of the phrase.

It began when Philadelphia police officers started calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” as they dealt with huge crowds and chaos during the holiday, according to history.com. Thousands of people swarmed the city each year to shop and attend the annual Army-Navy football game. But the phrase soon caught on with Philadelphia retailers, who started using it to promote sales.

Retailers across the country eventually followed suit, re-branding the day as the time when they moved out of the “red” and into the “black,” according to blackfriday.com. It’s a reference to the days when sales accounts were kept by hand, with red ink to indicate losses and black ink to indicate profits.

Shoppers buy Christmas cards at a Des Moines department store in December 1944. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

“From there, you really saw the term ‘Black Friday’ starting to be used in a big way across the country beginning in the 1990s,” Landis said. “That’s when you see door-buster sales and huge crowds lining up all night to be the first to get into a store for discounted merchandise.”

Since then, Black Friday has become one of the country’s busiest shopping days all year, along with most Saturdays in December.

Perhaps future historians will look back on our current era with puzzled curiosity as they try to figure out the origins of Gray Thursday (Thanksgiving Day), Small Business Saturday, Museum Store Sunday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday.

Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov