Finally! The Surprising Answer to How Black Friday Became a Thing and Why We Call It That

The famous shopping holiday is a relatively new one, but it wasn't always synonymous with low prices.

how-did-black-friday-startiStock/SamuelBrownNG

We all know that the Friday after Thanksgiving means a mad dash to the mall for ridiculous sales, even though we now know some Black Friday deals aren’t as good as they seem. But how did this bargain shopping chaos get its start? And why does it sound like it should be a day of mourning?

The first Black Friday actually had nothing to do with Thanksgiving or shopping. It was the day the U.S. gold market crashed. Financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk wanted to cheat Wall Street investors. They bought as much gold as they could, driving up gold prices by more than $30 an ounce. On Friday, September 24, 1869, the government put millions of dollars worth of gold onto the market. The price plummeted, investors went bankrupt instantly, and Gould and Fisk came out on top.

The origin of Black Friday as we know it today starts in Philadelphia during the 1950s and ‘60s. Crowds of people would come to town the day after Thanksgiving for the annual Army-Navy football game held the following Saturday. Streets and stores were always packed, which was great for business but made easy-pickings for shoplifters. Local police called this “Black Friday”—and for good reason. Not only did they have to deal with extra traffic and shoplifting, but they had to work extra hours and couldn’t request the day off.

The term didn’t go national until the late 1980s, but the definition changed. While retailers generally suffered financial losses most of the year, the surge of holiday shoppers marked the first day of real profit. In traditional accounting practices, losses were recorded in red ink, and profits in black ink. And so, the day after Thanksgiving, when companies go “into the black” and make a profit, became Black Friday. If rushing out to go shopping isn’t for you, celebrate Black Friday with one of these fun family activities instead. But if you do choose to hit the stores, here’s how to make the most of the experience.

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