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
"A linguist's thanksgiving", 11/23/2006
"Cyber Monday vs. eDay", 11/26/2006
"A Thanksgiving discussion", 11/22/2007
"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.