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From Crisis to Consumerism: The History of Black Friday

A Target in D.C. during Black Friday.
A Target in D.C. during Black Friday. By Courtesy of Gridpop at English Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons
By Hannah M. Wilkoff, Contributing Writer

Whether online or in person, the long weekend surrounding Black Friday is filled with huge markdowns on everything from technology to clothing and household appliances. However, the origin of Black Friday isn’t just holiday shopping and long lines, but perhaps something more sinister, aligning with the dark side of the consumerism-inducing holiday.

The commonly accepted story of Black Friday’s conception is that on the Friday after Thanksgiving, businesses would go from “in the red” — running at a loss — to “in the black” — turning a profit. This transition was marked by the start of the holiday shopping season.

However, this isn’t quite true. The first usage of Black Friday was on September 24, 1869, when the United States gold market crashed. Jim Fish and Jay Gould, two Wall Street financiers, had worked together to amass a large portion of the nation’s gold to drive up the price then making a huge profit in selling it. On that original Black Friday, their plan unraveled, sending the market into a downward spiral and bankrupting millions — from robber barons to farmers.

The first usage of Black Friday as it’s understood today came about in the 1950s and 60s in Philadelphia, but still without a positive connotation. With an influx of shoppers in town due to the Army-Navy football game, a general influx of holiday shoppers and slow service due to an inadequate number of workers the day after a holiday, traffic in the city was especially bad that day. Traffic cops, annoyed because they were required to work a 12-hour shift the day after Thanksgiving, began referring to the day as Black Friday.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that retailers successfully reinvented Black Friday, creating the red-to-black concept of the holiday, with doorbuster deals and a rapid start to the holiday season. Now, Black Friday has become a whole long weekend event, with Small Business Saturday or Sunday and Cyber Monday, as well as major deals in the surrounding weeks. Around 180 million Americans plan to go shopping that weekend and businesses count on it to make major sales at the start of their holiday season.

Crowding around tables after Thanksgiving meals, many families plan the route for which stores they are going to hit. Some even go to catch deals in stores that stay open late Thursday night or go as far as to camp overnight for stores’ openings on Friday morning. After what is supposed to be a holiday full of quality time with family, the spirit of Black Friday feels almost contradictory. The focus on mass consumption seems antithetical to the focus on gratitude that the Thursday holiday entails. However, for many families, the discounts allow them to get holiday gifts for themselves or others that they wouldn’t normally be able to afford or buy higher quality products than they would otherwise.

Although some of these gifts might be considered frivolous, many Black Friday deals are focused on big-ticket items like household appliances that families need. Overall, despite the fact that Black Friday can seemingly take away from the spirit of Thanksgiving, it allows families a different kind of opportunity — whether through planning a fun Friday together or giving someone a well-needed gift.

There is still an even darker side to Black Friday, however. Since 2006, there have been 17 recorded deaths and 125 recorded injuries, from stampedes, shootings, or other Black Friday-related incidents. In 1983, there were stampedes nationwide for Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls on Black Friday, which were believed to be in short supply, and a worker at one store was stomped to death. The loss of life connected to this holiday is tragic — the idea that a “deal” could cause a threat against another person’s life or safety.

Some in-person crowds have been eased as the holiday has switched to rely more heavily on online sales. This coincides with the advent of Cyber Monday and the movement to online shopping throughout the whole weekend more generally. Cyber Monday Sales have overtaken Black Friday since at least 2014. In 2021, there were $8.9 billion in sales on Black Friday, but $10.7 on Cyber Monday. Although shopping online can take away from the fun spirit of shopping instore, the comfort of being able to order from one’s couch seems overtake the in-person skirmishes to snatch the doorbuster deals in-store and expands access to the sales to those who might not have access to some of the bigger retailers for distance or accessibility reasons.

Despite the bleaker parts of the weekend of sales, there remain many upsides — whether the ability to get gifts and needed products at a more affordable price or to spend a day shopping with family. Additionally, the growth of Small Business Saturday is important to give back to local businesses and support stores that ordinarily would not be able to compete with bigger retailers.

Founded by American Express in 2010 and cosponsored by the Small Business Administration since 2011, the day celebrates and supports small businesses and what they do for the community with their slogan “shop small.” Sales reached $17.9 billion in 2022, bringing in valuable profits to the smaller businesses that are at the core of many communities. Regardless of one’s opinion on the weekend, it remains an important marker to measure the health of the economy, with sales being a major predictor for the performance of retailers throughout the holiday season and an indication of consumer confidence generally.

Through its many changes throughout the years, Black Friday — and increasingly the entire weekend — has emerged as a cornerstone of American culture.

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