A History of Black Friday

The day is now known as a day of excess. Not only does it make unreasonable demands on staff and customers alike, it has a big impact on our environment as well.

You may have seen the videos. A mob of shoppers pressed against the glass doors of a high street store, on the other side of which is a security guard waiting for a signal. When it arrives, the floodgate is opened. The customers rush in- running, jostling and pushing each other to get to the items marked down so low that the customers are paying next to nothing for everything from brand new TVs to laptops, washing machines, and of course, clothes and accessories.

Photo by  Ali Yahya  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Black Friday is now so ingrained in our society that it is difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist, but there indeed was a time when injuries and even deaths due to shopping was unheard of. Historians debate on how the biggest shopping event of the year came to be, and there are quite a few stories that attempt to explain its existence.

The officially sanctioned and perhaps most widely known story of Black Friday’s origin is in relation to the annual accounts of retailers. In the late 19th century in the U.S many people considered the day after Thanksgiving as the unofficial start of the Christmas season. This was the day that customers would flock to the stores to begin their Christmas shopping, which was made convenient by the fact that many stores introduced massive discounts on their products. And so, after a year of operating “in the red,” i.e., making losses rather than turning profits, the profits from this one day boom would allow the retailers to finally be “in the black.” Although this story is the most popular explanation for Black Friday, many historians criticise its inaccuracy.


In September 24, 1869, the US gold market suffered a huge crash.

The credit for this crash goes to two notorious Wall Street financiers named Jay Gould and Jim Fisk. Their modus operandi was that they would buy as much available gold as they could, later selling it at a much higher price. This culminated into the first ever recorded use of the term “Black Friday”- the value of gold crashed, which led to the free fall of the stock market. It took months for the U.S. Economy to recover from this financial crisis.


The Black Friday origin story that most historians support comes from the city of Philadelphia. In the 1950s, the police used the term to describe the pandemonium that happened when thousands of people flooded into the city for an important football game, held that particular Saturday every year. Unable to take the day off, the police would be overwhelmed with the crowds as well as the traffic, and making sure that shoplifters were kept in check. By 1961, the term was widely known in Philadelphia, but not the entire country. It was only in the late 1980s that Black Friday was reinvented- the origin story of retailers from being “in the red” to being “in the black” was fabricated, and Black Friday was marketed as the biggest shopping event of the year.


Today, other countries have also taken up the tradition, from Canada to Mexico to India, and yes, to Ireland. It has spawned many other “retail holidays,” with Cyber Monday being most prominent. The day is now known as a day of excess. Not only does it make unreasonable demands on staff and customers alike, it has a big impact on our environment as well.

Julia O'Driscoll1 Comment