“Black Friday” has become a household marketing term propagated by corporations that is now synonymous with the shopping frenzy for hot deals that is the day after Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t WalMart or Target or Best Buy that created the term itself.
That was definitely (probably) Philadelphia Police who, in the 1960s, started referring to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” because it was a day nobody wanted to work, thanks to massive traffic jams in the city and overcrowded sidewalks filled with not only shoppers, but also attendees of the annual Army-Navy Game.
Yep, police in the 1960s hated the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The term “Black Friday” wasn’t actually widely used until the 1980s. Bad internet memes and chain emails sent by your parents have before deemed “Black Friday” racist, saying it traces back to days when slave owners traded slaves at discounted prices the day after Thanksgiving. Also not true. Snopes.com checked into this one and found that the earliest reference to “Black Friday” actually came from the 1950s. At that point, it referred to people who skipped out on work on the day after Thanksgiving to get themselves a four-day weekend during a time when having off work on Black Friday wasn’t common.
It was police in Philadelphia though who started using the term “Black Friday” in a more widespread sense in the 1960s, but for them it had a negative connotation.
A 1961 press release of sorts claims that at that time, it had become “customary” for Philadelphia Police to refer to the two days after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday” and “Black Saturday” as a way to turn off customers to pouring into the area for shopping opportunities. (Think of it as an anti-“Visit Philly” campaign.) Then, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin police reporters starting using the phrase year after year on the front page of their (now-defunct) newspaper to refer to the day.
In the early 1960s, the day after Thanksgiving really was a pain for Philly cops. Not only was there traffic and overcrowding from shoppers, but police were also dealing with an influx of people in preparation from the Army-Navy game that routinely took place in the city the weekend after Thanksgiving. (Now, that game is usually played the second Saturday of December and typically marks the last game of the season for both teams.)
“Black Friday was used as a term — it was not a happy term,” Michael Lisicky, a retail scholar, told CBS Local several years ago. “The stores were just too crowded, the streets were crowded, the buses and the police were just on overcall and extra duty.”
Later in 1975, the Associated Press quoted a Philadelphia Gimbel’s manager who was watching an officer try to wrangle a jaywalker saying: “That’s why the bus drivers and cab drivers call today ‘Black Friday’… They think in terms of headaches it gives them.”
By the 1980s, the term spread and retailers started using “Black Friday” in reference to being “in the black” (yes, the accounting term) after shoppers wrapped up on the day after Thanksgiving. As you know, it’s since been popularized by corporations and marketers to draw in consumers willing to wait for hours in search of the best deals of the year.
So even though Philadelphia Police originally used the term with the hopes of turning away people from shopping the day after Thanksgiving, in the end, that branding ultimately backfired and “Black Friday” is now the most notorious shopping day of the year.