NPR : News

Filed Under:

Why 'Black Friday' Has Dark Roots

Black Friday may not yet be a bigger holiday than Thanksgiving, but it certainly has a bigger marketing budget. Retailers may have needed it to overcome the term's long and negative history.

And that's well before you get to talk of striking Walmart workers, or violence involving impatient shoppers in recent years.

Older generations may still associate "Black Friday" with the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression. But the connotation of financial distress dates back even further, to the collapse of the U.S. gold market on Sept. 24, 1869.

"The term Black Friday survived to be used again and again for various disasters and unfortunate events, including a 1910 incident in England where police assaulted several hundred suffragettes at a protest," notes Richard Townley in The Washington Times.

What does any of this have to do with shopping? Perhaps nothing. But even the earliest references to Black Friday as a post-Thanksgiving retail spree were negative.

The term appears to have originated about 50 years ago among police in Philadelphia inconvenienced by downtown crowds kicking off the holiday shopping season. Those crowds added to congestion from traffic in town for the Army-Navy football game, which in that era was generally played in Philly the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Black Friday "was not a happy term," department store historian Michael J. Lisicky told CBS News last year. "The stores were just too crowded, the streets were crowded, the buses and the police were just on overcall and extra duty."

Even a sales manager at the department store Gimbels in Philadelphia back in 1975 acknowledged the term's negative connotation and link to traffic headaches. "That's why the bus drivers and cab drivers call today 'Black Friday,' " she told The Associated Press, while watching a policeman struggle with a crowd of jaywalkers. "They think in terms of the headaches it gives them."

"Prior to the mid-1980s, the term 'Black Friday' was always used for some calamitous event," columnist Paul Mulshine wrote in New Jersey's Star-Ledger. "All of that negativity makes sense. 'Black Friday' has a naturally gloomy sound to it."

Of course retailers have long since embraced it, holding that the "black" in "Black Friday" is borrowed from accounting, meaning they hope to get "in the black" for the year by dint of holiday sales.

Some accounts credit this meaning to Peter Strawbridge, president of Strawbridge & Clothier, a now-defunct retailer that was based in Philadelphia.

But it doesn't seem that Strawbridge himself liked "Black Friday" much.

"It sounds like the end of the world, and we really like the day," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1984. "If anything, we should call it 'Green Friday.' "

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

On Television, More Transgender Characters Come Into Focus

Now that it's more common to see gay characters on TV, is the medium turning to transgender people for fresh stories? NPR's Neda Ulaby looks at TV's crop of transgender and "gender fluid" characters.
NPR

Obama Gets A Taste Of Jiro's 'Dream' Sushi In Name Of Diplomacy

On the first leg of his Asian tour, the president stopped by the iconic sushi restaurant. David Gelb, who directed a documentary about the restaurant, says eating there is amazing and nerve-wracking.
NPR

Pennsylvania Congresswoman Goes All In For Obamacare

Does Rep. Allyson Schwartz's pro-Affordable Care Act television ad signal a new thinking among Democrats running in statewide races?
NPR

Reports: FCC Poised For About-Face On Net Neutrality

According to reports, the FCC is set to approve a system in which Internet service providers offer a faster pipe to American homes to content companies willing to pay for it.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.