We all know what Black Friday is: in the U.S. it’s the madcap discount-driven shopping day after Thanksgiving that usually ends up with some kind of mayhem. Ask anyone these days what Black Friday means, and they’ll usually say it represents the day when retailers’ annual profit moves from red (a loss) to black (a gain,) due to this rush of maniacal shopping. The past few years an alternative theory about the origins of Black Friday suggested it’s linked to slavery. Is this really true? This meme floating around social media claims that Black Friday was started in the mid 19th century when slave-owners would sell slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. While the real details about slavery in the United States are horrific and heartbreaking, thankfully this isn’t one of them. There is no historical record of this happening. The first whisper of this connection sprang up about two years ago via this meme with no other sources or backing material.
The term Black Friday wasn’t a thing until the 1950s when employers used it to describe the phenomenon of workers calling in sick on the day after Thanksgiving to shop and have a four-day weekend. In the 1960s, the Philadelphia and New York police used to term to describe the heavy traffic and higher rate of incidents that occurred the day after Thanksgiving.
By the 70s, the term was being widely used outside of police departments, but the financial “in the black” meaning didn’t come about until the 1980s. The idea of Black Friday doesn’t have a definite birth point, but kind of evolved with the culture. It’s now so intertwined with the idea of before-Christmas consumerism that other countries have labeled their own Black Fridays. In fact, 2014 saw the biggest push of “Black Friday” marketing in the U.K. than ever before. Although there was a PR attempt in the 60s to change the name to “Big Friday,” because of the negative association of the word “black,” the dark frenzy associated with this day is part of its allure. Shoppers, transfixed by the idea of unbelievable sales and the ritual of the thing, sometimes trample people, or kill each other over parking spaces or toys. Of course, most people are safe while scrambling for Black Friday days, but the dangerous part of its lore adds to the thrill.
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