Black Friday’s complicated history

If last week’s fantastic advertising wrap didn’t clue you in, Black Friday is upon us with all the sales, price cuts and insatiable consumerism that comes with it.

SHOPPING SPREE: Black Friday’s history isn’t as innocent as we may like to believe

It should also noted that there are a number of different “Black Fridays” out there, all referring to different things. For example, September 24, 1869 was one of the most prominent Black Fridays and marked the near-crashing of the US economy by investors Jay Gould and James Fisk, who were able to corner the gold market on the New York Gold Exchange. Since the US was still on the gold standard at the time, their actions had devastating consequences.

Nowadays, however, Black Friday is most known as the day after Thanksgiving when retailers drop their prices enormously, leading to a buying frenzy that often outshines even the Christmas season.

As a “holiday” (albeit an unofficial one), Black Friday is easily the newest one in South Africa, being only a few years old. Like a lot of our holidays not based on historical events – Valentines, Mothers Day etc. – it’s actually borrowed from the US and its history is rather interesting.

I say that because there is actually no established history out there. All that exist is a bunch of legends and heresay, although some do seem more likely than others. For today, we’ll look at three of the most popular ones.

The first one is probably the darkest of the lot. The legend goes that Black Friday got its name from 1800s USA when plantation owners could buy slaves for drastically reduced prices on the day after Thanksgiving.

Putting aside the rich metaphorical potential in this rumour, there is absolutely no facts to back it up so we can safely put it aside as just one more bit of untrue pop history.

The second story is the one often pushed by retailers. According to this version, Black Friday started out as a kind of accounting in-joke. After a year of running at a loss (“in the red”), the post-Thanksgiving sales gave businesses a sudden surge in profit (“in the black”).

While this is certainly a more likely origin than the first, it is equally lacking in factual basis. It makes for a nice marketing one-liner but that’s probably all it is.

The final story does actually have basis in fact and is widely considered to be the most true.

The term “Black Friday” was first used in its modern context by Philadelphia police in the 1950s to describe the day after Thanksgiving. On this day, hordes of shoppers and tourists who would descend on the city for the annual Army vs Navy football game. Needless to say, this placed incredible strain on the police force every year, hence the term.

The problem was so bad that in 1961, a number of Philly businesses tried to unsuccessfully re-brand the day as “Big Friday” but that never stuck.

However, the term “Black Friday” didn’t catch on nationally until nearly 30 years after its inception. In the late 1980s, businesses finally succeeded in flipping Black Friday’s reputation, turning it from a derogatory term for one city’s logistical nightmare to a special day dedicated to shopping till you drop.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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