What's the Deal With Black Friday?
Unboxing the legacy of shopping’s biggest holiday.
A commercial poster offering discounts on Black Friday is seen in one of the shops in the center of Barcelona. (Photo by Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
There are a few places this story could start, but let’s begin in 1939, the last gasp of the Great Depression. At the time, Thanksgiving was held on the last Thursday in November, a tradition established during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency—but that year, November had five Thursdays, so the holiday fell late, on the 30th. Retailers worried that a shortened Christmas shopping season would hurt them in a faltering economy.
“There is never any Christmas buying until after Thanksgiving,” a merchant told the Boston Globe. “The November 30 date would give us six days less to sell than we had last year.” So the American Retail Federation and the National Retail Dry Goods Association contacted FDR’s cabinet, asking for the date to be moved. The president obliged. About three months before the holiday, he declared in a proclamation that, actually, Thanksgiving would be on the 23rd that year.
Republicans, football fans, and—for some reason—the citizens of Plymouth, Massachusetts were very pissed off by the decision; sixteen states refused to recognize “Franksgiving” and planned to defiantly carve their turkeys on the 30th. This caused confusion. “What about…college students in Massachusetts and other Republican States who hail from this or some other New Deal State?” the New York Times lamented in 1939. “On which day shall they appear at the family hearth hungry for the biggest meal of the year?” This question echoed without answer until 1942, when an annoyed Congress officially named Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month, reverting to later dates. According to the Wall Street Journal, FDR’s plan didn’t even boost sales.
Although the term “Black Friday” to describe the post-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza didn’t come into popular use until the midcentury, the tradition really begins here, with the president shuffling around holidays to give stores a sales boost. (Previously, “Black Friday” referred to an 1869 financial crash caused by a gold-selling scheme by this guy and this guy, whose nickname was “Jubilee Jim.”) In Philadelphia in the 1950s, police took to calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” because it was a huge pain in the neck: the streets were packed with holiday shopping traffic, so no one could take time off; plus, the chaos was an opportunity for Philadelphians to do a bunch of shoplifting, perhaps unsurprising in a city that now hosts the nation’s only anarcho-socialist sports mascot. In 1961, the deputy city representative of Philadelphia proposed rebranding the date as “Big Friday,” a term you have never heard anyone use.
The moniker spread across the country slowly yet deliberately, like a slice of provolone melting on a cheesesteak. It was used to describe Rochester, New York traffic in 1964; Michigan’s shopping hordes in 1976; then Delaware’s in 1977. A 1970 Philadelphia Inquirer story contains an early mention of the term’s alternate history: a department store PR director suggested a symbolic relationship between “Black Friday” and the black ink used to record profits in ledgers. By the 1980s, the phrase had entered mainstream consciousness, as had its association with untrammeled capitalism. (“Black Friday makes merchants see green,” reads a 1985 headline out of Asbury Park, New Jersey.) Without the name switch suggested by Philadelphia, its definition as a valuable sales day replaced connotations of really irritating traffic.
Since then, Black Friday’s shopping-centric identity hasn’t gone through many fundamental changes—it’s just gotten more violent. Brawls started breaking out around 2006, and the first Black Friday death occurred in 2008, when Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour was trampled by a crowd of shoppers on Long Island. (The website blackfridaydeathcount.com counts 10 additional deaths since then, as well as 111 injuries.) This may be abating with more online shopping, which has increased as a share of Black Friday sales—the internet is a scary place, but not as scary as mall hordes elbowing each other for discounted TVs.
Complaining about Black Friday is as historic a tradition as Black Friday itself, a great entrée to the Baby Boomer chestnut that the holiday shopping season is starting earlier and earlier each year. If you want to seem extra cool and knowledgeable at your Thanksgiving dinner, let everyone know that, in the 1930s, shopping used to start much earlier, before the legislature got together to curb the overreach of executive power. Or, another reading: if it’s so easy to move around holidays, why do we have Columbus Day off and not Election Day?