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What Does “Black Friday” Mean?

Nov. 1, 2013
Black Friday, Shopping
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Today, the words “Black Friday” conjure up a variety of images. Perhaps you think of long lines late into the night, blockbuster Black Friday deals at the crack of dawn or beaming smiles on Christmas day. Yet, have you ever wondered how the term Black Friday came to represent one of the biggest shopping days in the U.S.? As Black Friday nears, it’s worth investigating the history of the holiday’s name, how it came about, and how it has evolved over the years. Let’s take a look.

History of a name and a holiday

Believe it or not, “Black Friday” was not originally a widespread national term. In fact, it originated in the city of Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, it referred to the massive amount of foot and vehicle traffic the police had to deal with the day after Thanksgiving. By the 1980s, the phrase had moved beyond the City of Brotherly Love and was gradually appropriated on a national level to designate the retailer sales that sprouted up that day. Since then, it has come to indicate the start of the Christmas holiday season for retailers.

Initially, retailers throughout the country were irritated at the spread of the “Black Friday” label. They sought to replace the negatively charged “Black Friday” with the more positive term “Big Friday.”

When that strategy failed, retailers began to put forth a revisionist discourse on the history of the term, pretending that the “Black Friday” label originated from store profits (as in being “in the black”) rather than the calamitous traffic conditions on that day. While this story is untrue, it’s certainly an interesting version of the history of the term.

Not your father’s Black Friday

As most have probably noticed, retailers’ opening routine for Black Friday has changed quite a bit over the years. A mere ten years ago, the holiday was not the fussed over and frenzied event that it is today. Although retailers opened early for decades, they opened at a reasonable hour – usually around 7 or 8 in the morning – on Black Friday. Within the past five years, however, this time slowly moved back to 5 a.m., then to 4 a.m. Today, a few retailers are opening their doors at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night!

In some cases customers demanded the shift to earlier opening hours, but for the most part, the largest and most powerful retailers like Target, Walmart, and Best Buy instigated this change by scaling up their opening times, which many smaller companies gradually mirrored.

These early opening hours have many thinking about Black Friday’s future. Will Black Thursday soon replace Black Friday?

Final Word

While it’s uncertain whether Black Friday will continue to creep up earlier every year, it’s safe to assume that this holiday ritual is as irreplaceable as eating pumpkin pie or watching football. Considering Black Friday’s obscure origin and its fascinating evolution over time, it boggles the mind to think of how Black Friday will continue to change in years to come.

Holiday shopping image courtesy of Shutterstock.