Every year on the day after the American holiday of Thanksgiving, millions of shoppers head to the stores to take advantage of cut-price deals offered by retailers. The day has become known as Black Friday, but the origin of the name has recently become the focus of viral social media images.
I first noticed an image referring to the origins of the Black Friday name in 2013, as it began to circulate on social media. This image showed an image of a slave market, accompanied by text that claimed the name came from the practice of slave traders selling slaves at a ‘discount’ on this particular day to help plantation owners get all their tasks done before Christmas.
This is false.
Let’s begin by looking at the historical context. Slaves on both sides of the Atlantic were hardly ever referred to as ‘black’ at the time. It’s generally agreed that ‘Negro’ was the generic term applied to Africans by slavers and plantation owners but, despite this generalisation, their records almost always identified a specific ethnicity or tribal group. As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge it, traders and owners often wanted a particular ‘type’ of slave, so genetics and ancestry were massively important details to record. It therefore made no sense to use the broader term ‘black’ to describe slaves.
So if the term ‘Black Friday’ did not originate in the slave markets, where did it come from? Some claim that the term came from retailers themselves. A widely-accepted explanation is that it is in reference to accounting, marking the day on which retailers begin to show profit for the year – in which their accounts move from being ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’. However, this explanation doesn’t really begin to appear until the 1980s, by which time the term ‘Black Friday’ had already become associated with the day after Thanksgiving.
Research by the excellent myth-busting website Snopes.com has identified that the earliest known use of the term. According to Snopes, a 1951 article referred to ‘Black Friday’ as the day when loads of employees would phone in sick to nab a cheeky 4-day weekend after the holiday Thanksgiving on the Thursday. However, the term really took off after Philadelphia police began to use it to describe the awful traffic as a result of people heading out to go shopping the day after Thanksgiving, much like Boxing Day sales in the UK. The traffic jams, and the enforced 12-hour shifts for policemen and women are therefore largely held responsible for the nickname.
So…Black Friday is a 20th Century term that was originally used to describe terrible traffic (albeit connected with shopping!)