Whitewashing “Black Friday”: The Rebranding of an American Shopping Holiday

Bonnie Taylor-Blake

b.taylorblake@gmail.com, @btaylorblake

 

We’ve heard it before, that the origin of “Black Friday,” that crazy shopping day following Thanksgiving, lies in an old accounting practice. It’s said that retailers, operating at a loss in the build-up to the Christmas shopping season, suddenly experience a remarkable influx of cash on the day after Thanksgiving; the transactions in their ledger books are no longer recorded in red ink (signifying loss), but are instead indicated in black ink (signifying profits). The pre-Christmas shopping rush that is Black Friday has been an American retailing success story.

This, at least, is the retail industry’s explanation for how Black Friday acquired its name. Publications from the ‘50s and ‘60s and the recollections of a veteran Philadelphia reporter, however, not only reveal the more likely explanation for how “Black Friday” came to be, but also demonstrate an effort by retailers to sell to American consumers a more upbeat, though false origin-story for how the shopping holiday was named.

 

The earliest coupling of Thanksgiving with the phrase “Black Friday” appeared in the November, 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance, an industry trade magazine published in New York [1].  The term was used in a piece describing a then-novel way to deal heavy worker absenteeism on the day after Thanksgiving.

“Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the “Black Friday” comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick — and can prove it.

What to do? Many companies have tried the standard device of denying Thanksgiving Day pay to employees absent the day before and after the holiday. Trouble is, you can’t deny pay to those legitimately ill. But what’s legitimate? Tough to decide these days of often miraculously easy doctors’ certificates.

Glenn L. Martin, Baltimore aircraft manufacturer has another solution: When you decide you want to sweeten up the holiday kitty, pick Black Friday to add to the list. That’s just what Martin has done. Friday after Thanksgiving is the company’s seventh paid holiday.

On the other hand, a 1957 Rochester, New York newspaper piece on an effort to provide American workers with more three-day weekends suggests that “Black Friday” may have been in use to denote a workday following a Thursday holiday, any Thursday holiday [2].

We are most of the way through another one of those scrambled weekends which occur when Thursday is a holiday; when some people have to go to work Friday and some don’t; and when everybody stews about what an awful stew it all is.

“Black Friday” is the name being given to days like yesterday.

“Yesterday” for these newspaper readers would have been Memorial Day, Thursday, 30 May 1957.

 

Word sleuth Barry Popik has found a 1 December 1961 usage of “Black Friday” — again with a specific association with Thanksgiving — in a Shortsville, New York newspaper [3]. It appeared in regard to a mother’s hectic post-Thanksgiving shopping expedition in nearby Rochester.

Kathie [sic] Caulkins, our intrepid advertising manager, made a serious mistake in judgment last Friday. Took her three kids to Rochester on the day all city police call “Black Friday.”

Besides being the day after Thanksgiving — thus one of the busiest shopping days in the year — bus drivers were still on strike, adding to automotive traffic. Katie reports she waited through 13 changes of a single traffic light — then had to back up to get into the parking garage. “I didn’t care if I crumpled fifty fenders at that point,” Katie reports.

And greatest wonder of all — Katie actually returned to town with all three kids – didn’t try to lose them once.

We hereby award her the Order of the Crumpled Shopping Bag for valor above and beyond the call of Christmas.

Interestingly, at the same time police in Philadelphia were also calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” [4].

For downtown merchants throughout the nation, the biggest shopping days normally are the two following Thanksgiving Day. Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.

In 1994, Joseph P. Barrett, a veteran Philadelphia newspaper reporter, recalled uses in that city of “Black Friday” to denote the day after Thanksgiving [5].

The term “Black Friday” came out of the old Philadelphia Police Department’s traffic squad. The cops used it to describe the worst traffic jams which annually occurred in the Center City on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Barrett emphasized demands on Philadelphia police,

Every “Black Friday,” no traffic policeman was permitted to take the day off. The division was placed on 12 tours of duty, and even the police band was ordered to Center City.

He concluded,

Today the term seems lost in antiquity, but it was a traffic cop who started it, the guy who directed traffic with a semaphore while standing on a small wooden platform, in the days before traffic lights.

That “Black Friday” began with police is reinforced in a 1966 advertisement placed by Martin Apfelbaum, a Philadelphia shop-owner [6].

JANUARY 1966 — “Black Friday” is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day.  It is not a term of endearment to them.  “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.

Was this usage among police officers in Rochester and Philadelphia originally a reference to having to work on a Friday after a Thursday holiday, specifically the day after Thanksgiving, as “labor uses” from the 1950s [1, 2] suggest?

Or were police officers from the outset using “Black Friday” tongue in cheek, with a nod to the calamity associated with hordes of drivers and shoppers in downtown retail districts?

Whatever the answer, we know Philadelphia retailers were not happy with the term.  In December, 1961 public-relations maven Denny Griswold alluded to merchants’ displeasure with police use of “Black Friday” and “Black Saturday” and described an effort to rename the days after Thanksgiving [4].

Resulting traffic jams are an irksome problem to the police and, in Philadelphia, it became customary for officers to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.  Hardly a stimulus for good business, the problem was discussed by the merchants with their Deputy City Representative, Abe S. Rosen, one of the country’s most experienced municipal PR executives.  He recommended adoption of a positive approach which would convert Black Friday and Black Saturday to Big Friday and Big Saturday.  The media cooperated in spreading the news of the beauty of Christmas-decorated downtown Philadelphia, the popularity of a “family-day outing” to the department stores during the Thanksgiving weekend, the increased parking facilities, and the use of additional police officers for guaranteeing a free flow of traffic … Rosen reports that business over the weekend was so good that merchants are giving downtown Philadelphia “a starry-eyed new look.”

In his 1994 piece on Black Friday, Veteran reporter Joseph Barrett mentioned this ultimately failed campaign [5].

In the early 1960s, [fellow Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reporter Nathan Kleger] and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriate the police term “Black Friday” to describe the terrible traffic conditions.

Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown.  I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

Trimmer, tongue in cheek, would say only that Black Friday was used to describe the Valentine’s Day massacre of mobsters in Chicago.

The following year, Brown put out a press release describing the day as “Big Friday.” But Kleger and I held our ground, and once more said it was “Black Friday.”  And of course we used it year after year.  Then television picked it up.

We know that the “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday” didn’t take because by 1966 even Philadelphia shop-owner Martin Apfelbaum was still referring to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday.”

At some later point the effort to get rid of “Black Friday” and its negative associations was, perhaps informally, renewed.  When it became clear that it would be impossible to change the name “Black Friday,” someone decided to put a positive spin on the moniker by creating a fake etymology.  And by 1981 a Philadelphia merchant representative was trying it out [7].

If the day is the year’s biggest for retailers, why is it called Black Friday?

Because it is a day retailers make profits — black ink, said Grace McFeeley of [Philadelphia’s] Cherry Hill Mall.

“I think it came from the media,” said William Timmons of Strawbridge & Clothier.

“It’s the employees, we’re the ones who call it Black Friday,” said Belle Stephens of Moorestown Mall.  “We work extra hard.  It’s a long hard day for the employees.”

It’s easy to see why retailers would want to rebrand the term.  Not only was “Black Friday” a reminder to ‘60s shoppers of traffic and parking headaches in downtown shopping districts [4], but also the term was an already well-known moniker for historically calamitous days (such as financial panics) and, for the superstitious, any Friday the 13th.  By 1983, even The Philadelphia Inquirer was selling the rehabilitation of the term — the notion that “Black Friday” had to do with black ink [8].

Black Friday derives its name from the fact that the level of pre-Christmas sales usually mean [sic] the difference between a loss on retailers’ ledgers for the year – resulting in “red ink” — or profits — “black ink.”  The Friday after Thanksgiving is usually the first sign of how consumers will spend during the Christmas season.

For several years thereafter, however, Jennifer Lin — then-reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer — collected retailers’ and shoppers’ thoughts on “Black Friday” and demonstrated that the “black ink” theory was sometimes a hard sell [7].

By the 1990s the term as applied to the shopping day after Thanksgiving had escaped the Northeast and was making its way across the country.  Sold in tandem was the explanation that “Black Friday” had to do with ledger books going from “in the red” to “in the black.”

The etymology of “Black Friday” when used for the day after Thanksgiving is interesting.  Unclear is whether it was first used by workers (including police officers) to denote having to work the day after a Thursday holiday (with an evolution to the day after Thanksgiving specifically) or by police in Northeast cities to allude to having to work long hours in a traffic-filled city centers at the start of the Christmas shopping season.

In any event, the term and its negative hue bothered retailers.  Philadelphia merchants and city officials first tried to get “Black Friday” renamed as “Big Friday,” which ultimately failed.  Realizing they were stuck with the name, merchant representatives rehabilitated “Black Friday,” rebranding it by putting a positive spin on it, manufacturing an explanation wholly reflective of retailers’ glee at profits.

The “black ink”-based origin-story for “Black Friday” is the one that, like tar, seems to have stuck with American shoppers, in part because the retail industry has sold it to the buying-public for the past 30 years.  Up until now, the faux etymology of “Black Friday” has stood on its own as yet another American retailing success story.


[Note: A very recent faux etymology for “Black Friday” — that its roots lie in an “old practice” of selling (Black) slaves at half price on the day after Thanksgiving — has been debunked by David Mikkelson, http://www.snopes.com/holidays/thanksgiving/blackfriday.asp.]


References

[1] https://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2009-August/092018.html

[2] http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2016-August/143625.html

[3] http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2014-November/135115.html

[4] http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2011-May/109292.html

[5] Joseph P. Barrett, “This Friday Was Black with Traffic,” The Philadelphia Daily News, 25 November, 1994, p. 80.

[6] http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2008-April/081311.html

[7] http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2008-April/081342.html

[8] Arthur Howe and Jennifer Lin, “Black Friday:  Retailers Find Sales Follow the Sun,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Business Section, 26 November 1983, pp. 9D-10D.

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