Black Friday

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The annual Thanksgiving feast may have had its origins in Massachusetts, but "Black Friday" is one of  Philadelphia's contributions to American culture. Ben Zimmer told the story in his 11/25/2011 Word Routes column, reporting on research by Bonnie Taylor-Blake:

Today is the day after Thanksgiving, when holiday shopping kicks off and sales-hunters are in full frenzy. The day has come to be known in the United States as "Black Friday," and there are a number of myths about the origin of the name. Retailers would like you to believe that it's the day when stores turn a profit on the year, thus "going into the black." But don't you believe it: the true origins come from traffic-weary police officers in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. [...]

Philadelphia merchants disliked the label "Black Friday" and tried to get people to use a more positive term: "Big Friday." That effort failed, of course, and "Black Friday" caught on, spreading to other cities in the 1970s and '80s.

While I'm reluctant to second-guess Ben, whose scholarship in such matters is usually impeccable, a bit of poking around in newpaper archives suggests that the term didn't start to spread outside of Philadelphia until 1987, and didn't really become accepted nation-wide until the mid-1990s.

The earliest example in the New York Times archive seems to be Gordon S. White, "Army vs. Navy: A Dimming of Splendor", 11/29/1975:

Philadelphia police and bus drivers call it "Black Friday" that day each year between Thanksgiving Day and the Army-Navy game. It is the busiest shopping and traffic day of the year in the Bicentennial City as the Christmas list is checked off and the Eastern college football season nears conclusion.

But that's a specific reference to a local Philadephia usage associated with a specific local Philadephia confluence of events.

In newpapers outside of Philadelphia, the earliest general-usage examples that I've been able to find come from 1987, more or less simultaneously in New York, Washington DC, and Orange County CA. Thus Eve Zibart, "The Shopper's Guide to Surviving a Malling", Washington Post 11/20/1987:

Do not shop next weekend (unless you're into S&M or S&Ls). The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year — store workers call it "Black Friday."

Philip Gutis, "Mall Scenes: Toys, Tinsel and Frenzy", NYT 11/28/1987:

Since midnight, about 10 mean and women have worked in the mall, shining floors, sweeping parking lots, polishing glass. "They are expecting a nice job from us today," said Hector L. Vazquez, assistant maintenance supervisor. "Last night, when we started, I told my people that we need the best from them"

Mr. Vazquez's plea is understandable. Today, after all, is Black Friday, believed to be among the most hectic shopping days — if not the most hectic — of the year.

And Jan Norman, "Part-time retailers go full steam; Lucrative Christmas shopping season brings out the short-term storekeepers", The Orange County Register 12/1/1987:

"It's a lot of work for a short amount of time, but you're also maximizing the return on your investment in a short time," says Holly Hefter, who with sister Deborah has opened a gift store called Elements in the Brea Mall to supplement their permanent shops in Irvine and Orange. "The day after Thanksgiving is lovingly called Black Friday by retailers because that's the day they move from red ink into the black."

Note also that those three examples are focused, explicitly or implicitly, on retail store workers. The same is true of the earliest example that I've found in the Los Angeles Times, David Wharton, "A Toy Store's Longest Day: Christmas Shopping Season Returns", 12/1/1989:

Each year, holiday shopping officially begins on the day after Thanksgiving, a day that Toys R Us officials call "Black Friday."

In 1993, the Washington Post is still treating the term as a piece of retailers' jargon (Kirstin Downey-Grimsley, "The Friday That Foretells Success", 11/27/1993:

Sally Gere, 46, and her friend Laura Oliff Maxey, 44, yesterday braved the holiday crowds at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, striding through a sun-drenched atrium bedecked with dangling cherubs, hoping to get some quick Christmas shopping done.

Conventional wisdom would call them foolhardy, because most people believe that the infamous Day After Thanksgiving — the day known by retailers as Black Friday because it shifts their balance sheets into the black is the most traffic-clossed, shopping-crazed, parking-starved episode of the holiday season.

Examples remain sparse through the early 1990s. The earliest use in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seems to be in 1991 (Robert Berry, "The Buying Season: Prime time at the mall", 11/28/1991):

Call it "Operation Christmas Storm" – or, like some local shoppers, call it Black Friday, fought with credit cards and checkbooks and a Russian worker's hearty sense of how to make it to the best values first.

The earliest example in the Wall Street Journal seems to be Deborah Lohse, "Shopping Tip: Don't Put the Budget on Holiday", 11/26/1993:

Today is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season and one of the biggest days of the year for retailers of all kinds. It is also a day that can easily turn into "Black Friday" for the family budget.

The earliest example in USA Today is Ellen Neuborne, "A Shoppers' Survival Guide", 11/1/1993:

For Thanksgiving weekend shoppers. From Black Friday – the jam-packed day after Thanksgiving – to the week before Christmas is the traditional shopping season.

The first example in the Tampa Tribune is Jim Riley, "Franklin Mint opens at local mall", 11/25/1994:

The malls already have been busy, but today will be by far the busiest of the holiday shopping season. One day after being bombarded by retail ads in their newspapers, shoppers will head out en masse, jamming the parking lots and clogging nearby roads.

Retail clerks call it Black Friday, but it's the rosiest day of the year in terms of revenue.

The earliest example in the Austin American-Statesman is R. Michelle Breyer, Kirk Ladendorf, & Bruce Hight, "Retailers welcome Gold Friday", 11/30/1996:

Although some stores got a head start, most Austin-area retailers anxiously prepared for Friday, the official first day of the Christmas shopping season.

It's called Black Friday by the employees, who must deal with the mass of crazed shoppers. Retail bosses think of it more as Gold Friday because they can expect to ring up as much as half their annual sales during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Through a more careful search of on-line newspaper archives, it should now be fairly easy to document more exactly how this term spread  in time and space. A more difficult exercise in cultural history would be to figure out how the phenomenon — as opposed to the name — originated and spread. Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the U.S. dates to 1863, and the timing (the last Thursday in November) makes the following weekend a convenient time to begin Christmas shopping. Still, I doubt that the day after Thanksgiving instantly became an especially big shopping day in 1863.

Some evidence that post-Thanksgiving shopping took a while to develop can be found in "Sales Spurt in Minneapolis: Trade After Thanksgiving Far Exceeds Expectations", NYT 11/27/1932:

Department store trade spurted here the day after Thanksgiving, with sales running far above expectations.

33 years later, the expectations seem to have changed — Virginia Lee Warren, "On the Day After Thanksgiving, It Is Suddenly Christmas Eve", NYT 11/26/1965:

CHRISTMAS, as any shopper knows, begins the day after Thanksgiving, and from then until the big day itself it becomes difficult to enter any department store or full-blown specialty shop without encountering a boutique, either especially set up or grandly refurbished.

OK, that's all the amateur cultural history that I have time for this morning. If you're still putting off pre-feast chores, or escaping para-feast football games, or just looking for something to discuss besides politics, here are some of our Thanksgiving-themed posts from earlier years:

"Same-sex Mrs. Santa: 'the semantics are confusing'", 11/27/2003
"Thanks Giving", 11/25/2004
"Life in these, uh, this United States", 11/24/2005
"Cybermundanity", 11/29/2005
"A linguist's thanksgiving", 11/23/2006
"Cyber Monday vs. eDay", 11/26/2006
"A Thanksgiving discussion", 11/22/2007
"Thanksgiving variation",11/23/2007
"In the wake of Thanksgiving", 11/27/2007
"Thanksgiving: The Greek influence", 11/28/2007
"Giving thanks", 11/26/2009

And to forestall indignant commenters, I should note that "Black Friday" has a number of other (and earlier) meanings, for example the popping of an 1869 gold-market bubble, a 1910 British women's suffrage protest, and a 1945 riot by set decorators at the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. The source of the phrase is presumably its use as an alternative term for the Christian "Good Friday", which has made it available as a way of referring to a Friday on which notable negative things happen.

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22 Comments »

  1. Stephen said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Presumably "Black-eye Friday" – the last Friday before Christmas – does relate to drink induced fights on the last payday before Christmas rather than to a variation on "Black Friday"?

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    Though it's true that "Black Friday" remained mostly restricted to Philadelphia in the '70s and '80s, there's some evidence in regional newspaper databases that it was spreading to other cities during that time. For instance, there are numerous cites for "Black Friday" in the Trenton (NJ) Times beginning in 1976 (granted, Trenton isn't too far from Philly), and it shows up in the Dallas Morning News in 1978.

    [(myl) I see that the context of the 1978 DMN example (Tom Bayer, "Shoppers swarm to area malls") is this lede:

    Economists may be sitting talking about recessions and depressions, but, in the meantime, Metroplex shoppers mobbed area stores and shopping malls on what is called Black Friday in some cities.

    And in the DMN archive from 1982 onwards, which is what Penn's library subscription to NewBank gives me access to, the earliest example of "Black Friday" (as a reference to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving) seems to be in a headline from 1996.

    So maybe Tom Bayer was a refugee from the Delaware Valley? Anyhow, no doubt there are other scattered seeds from which today's lush profusion of Black Friday references grew. But as far as I can tell, nationwide usage didn't become widespread until the mid-1990s.]

  3. Bob Lieblich said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Nitpick — Thanksgiving is the last Thursday in November, not necessarily the fourth. This year offers one example — the last Thursday is the 29th, but the holiday is on the 22nd.

    I recall reading that in the Thirties some confusion arose when the federal government itself became unsure whether the President should proclaim Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday or the last. I believe FDR pinned it down on the fourth, thus unconfusing future generations.

  4. Bob Lieblich said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    WHOOPS – Thanksgiving is the fourth, not the last, Thursday. I was so busy dreaming of turkey that I got it backwards in my first sentence above. Apologies to all, and please don't be too harsh.

  5. richardelguru said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    For years I've been trying to promote a much more logical name to follow Thanksgiving Day: You'rewelcomegiving Day.
    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=427

  6. David Morris said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    One of my Chinese students asked me a few days ago what "Black Friday" means. I couldn't pin him down to a context. In Australia, it refers either to Friday 13th (which I explained to him), or to catastrophic bushfires in 1939 and 2009 (which I didn't). But I know enough about life in the US to know about the retail Black Friday, so told him about that, but he still didn't say which context he meant.

  7. Mal in China said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    @ ML "…a 1910 British women's sufferage protest…"

    I think you mean "suffrage". I'm sure it was just a typo.

    I'm teaching a course on 'British Life and Culture' as I believe an understanding of the culture of a country is the fifth language skill after reading, writing, listening and speaking.

    We have just covered some key events including Emmeline Pankhurst and the foundation of the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903, and the death of Emily Davison after falling under the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby. Even my university students asked about the spelling of 'suffragettes'.

    In the discussion that followed on the role of women in modern China, we talked about the low numbers of women involved in party politics.

  8. Joe Green said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    @David Morris: actually the 2009 bushfires were on Black Saturday. There have also been various Black Sundays and a Black Thursday. Probably other days too.

    The U.S. has bush (forest) fires too. Does it not also suffer significant loss of human life and remember them in this way?

  9. Martin J Ball said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

    On NPR this morning the term 'Gray Thursday' was given to Thanksgiving this year to mark that some stores were starting their sales a day early ….

  10. rwmg said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 9:49 pm

    I'm still bemused as to what amazon.co.uk imagines Black Friday is in a British context. The day after a holiday not celebrated in the UK? Or is this part of their 'we're not a British company so we don't have to pay British taxes' ploy?

  11. Just another Peter said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    @Bob: it was the last Thursday in November until 1939, when Roosevelt tried to change it to the second-last (due to the Great Depression, so that people would have more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas). In 1942 they compromised at the fourth Thursday.

  12. David Morris said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    @Joe Green – Thanks for the correction. Yes, I thought the 2009 fires were on a Saturday, but I was still in South Korea then, and couldn't exactly remember. I typed "Black Friday bushfires" into Google and "1939" and "2009" popped up. I don't know what Google thinks happened on Fri 6 Feb 2009.
    I stand by my main point, which is that in Australia, the term "Black Friday" can refer to bushfires, for example in 1939.

  13. maidhc said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 4:42 am

    Each year, holiday shopping officially begins on the day after Thanksgiving

    Another example of the use of "official" by journalists to refer to something that is not in any way official. It could be official, if, for example, the government had ordained that a different sales tax was in effect during a certain period. But since this is not the case, the usage is only customary.

    The most common misuse of "official" is the ever-popular "official first day of winter" on the winter solstice. It is never stated who these officials are who have made this choice among the many options, although I suspect it may be the publishers of the Old Farmer's Almanac. I'm referring to the US; in the UK the Met Office has declared Dec. 1 the first day of winter (following the standard meteorological definition), which I guess could be considered "official".

  14. mgh said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    In other Black Friday language news, is "cashback" becoming a new compound word? I am noticing it on some Black Friday sites.

  15. Joe Green said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    @mgh: surely nothing new about cashback.That's been a thing in the UK for decades. Unless it's taken on a new meaning of course.

  16. Andrew Baker said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    The 1942 Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire film Holiday Inn provides some contemporary commentary on the Thanksgiving date flux of that era. The film, for those not familiar with it, follows a pair of entertainers and romantic rivals (Crosby and Astaire) throughout the course of a year performing shows at the inn, which is open only on holidays. Between each segment of the film, a calendar page gives tells us the next holiday. For the Thanksgiving intro, an animated turkey sits on one of the Thursdays, then proceeds to move to the other and—in exasperation—back to the first again.

  17. Karl Weber said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    What does Philadelphia have to do with the Army-Navy game? Army plays in West Point, NY, and Navy plays in Annapolis, MD.

  18. Andrew Baker said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

    @Karl Weber

    The Army–Navy game has traditionally been played in Philadelphia, 83 times out 112 total meetings. Between 1945 and 1982, covering the "Black Friday" era discussed above, it was played there every year.

  19. Linda Marshall said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    The concept of Black Friday is rapidly spreading to Canada, even though our Thanksgiving is in early/mid October. We should start keeping track now, see how long before it becomes worldwide.

  20. Ted said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    @maidhc: What is the "standard meteorological definition"? I have always understood the definition of winter to be the period from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox.

  21. Audrey W. said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    I first heard "Black Friday" used by retail workers in online communities who were complaining about how awful the day was, back when the sales were called "the Thanksgiving sales" or "the day-after-Thanksgiving sales" in all the papers and ads. Braving the stores as a shopper is bad enough – working in the stores is usually worse. Not only do you have to placate the frantic mobs, you don't have the option of leaving without losing your job. Retail workers called it Black Friday because, for them, it was the worst, most stressful workday of the entire year.

    (See some instances of 'Black Monday' for comparison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Monday .)

  22. boris said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    Here in the US, we call the equinox the astronomical first day of winter and December 1 the meteorological first day of winter. I have been confused about the former since coming to this country from Russia (where December 1 was the first day of winter, period). If we are going to somehow define winter in astronomical terms, wouldn't the equinox be the *middle* of winter? Then winter would be the 3 months with the shortest length of sunlight. The meteorological definition, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. In addition to winter being 3 full calendar months, it is also roughly the coldest period of the year (at least outside the tropics).

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