The Real History of Black Friday: A Timeline

Children are taught the first Thanksgiving in America occurred in 1621, following the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. While that story is rooted in fact, historians say the tradition of the Thanksgiving feast is much darker than the version of the events repeated in cartoons, storybooks, and songs. Similarly, Black Friday—touted as the busiest shopping day of the year—has a few half-truths in its own origin story.

There have been a number of rumors over the years regarding how the day after Thanksgiving became known as Black Friday, including debunked theories that it originated as a day for discounted slave trade or evolved from a 19th century gold-selling scam. Today, the frequently repeated line is Black Friday is the first day in the calendar year when retailers shift from operating at a loss (“in the red”) to breaking even or making a profit, (“in the black.”) So how did the day after Thanksgiving become known as the biggest shopping day of the year? We’ve assembled a history of Black Friday timeline for a deeper look at the retail holiday.

1891

The first recorded Black Friday Sale was in January, not November. According to Money Talks News, The Hub—a Great Falls, Montana, clothing store—advertised a post-Christmas “Black Friday Bargain Sale” to reduce its inventory of suits, overcoats, and children’s wear.

1924

In 1924, the Friday after Thanksgiving became the unofficial start to the holiday shopping season thanks to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. More than 250,000 spectators showed up for the first installment, which ended—as it has every year since—with Santa’s grand entrance.

1950s

According to The History Channel, Philadelphia police referred to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” because “hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year.” Cops were required to work that day to deal with traffic, crowd control, and the increased number of shoplifters.

Each business’s approach to Black Friday should be based on customer expectations and company values.

1961

Philadelphia attempted to rebrand the post-Thanksgiving shopping push in 1961, dubbing the two days after the holiday “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday.” The names didn’t stick, but that wasn’t the end of the public relations campaign to bolster holiday sales.

1980s

In the 80s, the tale of the black ink to reflect retail profits gained traction. Bonnie Taylor-Blake of the American Dialect Society says the explanation was published in the Nov. 28, 1981 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, attributed to Grace McFeeley of Cherry Hill Mall. By the late 80s, the term was part of the retail lexicon.

1990s

In the 90s, retailers began refining their Black Friday strategies, opening at unusual hours like 5 a.m., and offering steep discounts and loss-leader deals to early shoppers. By limiting discounts to the morning, retailers created a buy-now frenzy not only around the super-discounted loss-leader items, but around less-discounted products for shoppers who didn’t luck out with the doorbusters.

Online or in real life, the most important thing a retailer can do is meet shoppers’ needs and demands with an outstanding customer experience.

2000s

Until 2002, the Saturday before Christmas was the busiest shopping day of the year, and Black Friday ranked between fourth and eighth on the list, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. As online shopping became faster and easier, brick-and-mortar retailers began promoting Black Friday deals as way to get customers to spend money in stores.

2010s

As a growing number of retailers like Walmart and Target experimented with opening on Thanksgiving to get a jump on Black Friday sales, some retailers began to push back against the mayhem by sitting out “the busiest shopping day.” For the fourth consecutive year, REI will close its stores in 2018 on Black Friday and will not process web orders. Instead, the company encourages its customers to #OptOutside. Likewise, in 2017, ModCloth shut down its site and donated $5 million in merchandise to Dress for Success.

The Future 

Consumers turned Black Friday into a boom for brands. For the last decade, the day after Thanksgiving has frequently been the busiest shopping day of the year. (It is once again predicted to take the title in 2018.) But the holiday shopping season is in a state of constant flux. As ecommerce commands a larger portion of the retail market, Cyber Monday has started to rival Black Friday in sales. And, in an attempt to extend the holiday spending frenzy, retailers like Walmart and Target have even started messaging “Black Friday deals” in early November.  

Each business’s approach to Black Friday should be based on customer expectations and company values. For big box retailers like Target, Walmart, and Best Buy, shoppers expect deeply discounted electronic, toys, and housewares on Black Friday, and extended hours throughout the holidays. Failing to meet that expectation would be a costly misstep. For niche brands like REI and ModCloth, closing for Black Friday is consistent with the companies’ feel-good DNA, and reinforces the customers’ perceptions of those brands. (Additionally, with so few retailers closing for that day, the earned media from such a move may actually help the company net greater sales during the holiday push.)

Regardless of whether a retailer opens early or closes entirely on Black Friday, there are multiple ways to win the holiday shopping season. Online or in real life, the most important thing a retailer can do is meet shoppers’ needs and demands with an outstanding customer experience. Know your customer, deliver on that promise, and success will follow.