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The history behind “Black Friday”

Ever wonder why the day after Thanksgiving is called “black friday”? We did some digging on the good old internets and found the answers…
Stress from large crowds

The earliest uses of “Black Friday” refer to the heavy traffic on that day, an implicit comparison to the extremely stressful and chaotic experience of Black Tuesday (the 1929 stock-market crash) or other black days. The earliest known references to “Black Friday” (in this sense) are from two newspaper articles from November 29, 1975, that explicitly refer to the day’s hectic nature and heavy traffic. The first reference is in an article entitled “Army vs. Navy: A Dimming Splendor,” in The New York Times:

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.

The derivation is made even more explicit in an Associated Press article entitled “Folks on Buying Spree Despite Down Economy,” which ran in the Titusville Herald on the same day:

Store aisles were jammed. Escalators were nonstop people. It was the first day of the Christmas shopping season and despite the economy, folks here went on a buying spree. . . . . “That’s why the bus drivers and cab drivers call today ‘Black Friday,'” a sales manager at Gimbels said as she watched a traffic cop trying to control a crowd of jaywalkers. “They think in terms of headaches it gives them.”

Both articles have a Philadelphia dateline, suggesting the term may have originated in that area.

Accounting practice

More recently, a false assumption has been circulated that the term originates from the theory that retailers traditionally operated at a financial loss for most of the year (January through November) and made their profit during the holiday season. When this would be recorded in the financial records, once-common accounting practices would use red ink to show negative amounts and black ink to show positive amounts. Black Friday, under this theory, is the beginning of the period where retailers would no longer have losses (the red) and instead take in the year’s profits (the black). (Retailers’ profitability varies, but some retailers are indeed dependent on the holiday season for their profits.) This sense has been traced back to a November 26, 1982, broadcast of ABC News’ World News Tonight, which said:

Some merchants label the day after Thanksgiving Black Friday because business today can mean the difference between red ink and black on the ledgers. But this year hefty sales are vital not only to the stores but to the entire economy.

The primary flaw in this theory is that retailers (and their stockholders) would assume an acceptable loss for nearly eleven months out of the year in the hopes of finally earning a profit in the last five weeks. An examination of the quarterly SEC filings of any major retailer such as Wal-Mart or Target clearly shows that retailers intend to and actually do make profits during every quarter of the year. Because the heavy traffic etymology is contemporaneous with the earliest known uses of the term, while the black ink theory apparently was not suggested until several years later, the accounting practice origin is likely to be Urban Legend.