Black Friday is fairly new to the UK. Our stiff upper lips have long kept us safe from the jostling and aggressive elbows. Not so anymore.
In the US, it falls on the day after Thanksgiving. People battling turkey hangovers descend on shops desperate to get their hands on the biggest seasonal bargains. It sounds innocent enough, but in recent years there has been chaos, violence and plenty of viral videos. In 2011 a Los Angeles shopper doused a crowd with pepper spray so she could make off with a discounted Xbox. In 2013 a Walmart worker lost his life in a stampede. In the UK there have been huge fights and countless arrests. There have been car accidents, robberies, even shootings. I How did we get to all this craziness?
Origins of the term
The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was on 24 September, 1869. It was used in reference to the crash of US gold market. Ruthless Wall Street types Jim Fisk and Jay Gould pooled their resources to buy up as much of the nation’s gold as they could – resulting in a spectacular stock market crash.
Over the years there have been several myths attached to the tradition, some in particular which need to be dispelled.
The biggest misconception about Black Friday is that it was named on account of being the day of the year merchants finally start to turn a profit. After a year of being ‘in the red’ retail companies supposedly go ‘into the black’ after holiday shoppers blow huge wads on discounted merchandise. In fact, shops report a far bigger surge in sales on the Saturday before Christmas. While the story has mostly been discredited as inaccurate, there is another supposed explanation which is much uglier.
According to this particular myth, 1800s Southern plantation owners were able to buy slaves at a discounted price the day after Thanksgiving. Although this smacks of urban legend, people have believed it so much that many have been moved to boycott Black Friday and even Thanksgiving. Again, this disturbing story has no basis in fact.
The truth is much more familiar. In the 1950s, Philadelphia police used the term to describe the chaos that hit the city the day after Thanksgiving, when a wave of shoppers swept over the city ahead of the big Army-Navy football game. This meant that Philly cops couldn’t take any holiday over the long weekend they would have to work extra long shifts dealing with the crowds. Opportunist shoplifters would make the most of the insanity, making off with as much merchandise as they could carry.
By 1961, “Black Friday” was officially a thing – at least in Philadelphia. Retailers tried half-heartedly to get it changed to “Big Friday” to remove some of the negative connotations but to no avail.
It took another two decades for the tradition to hit the rest of the country. At the end of the 1980s the powers that be once again decided that the day needed a rebrand. Changing the name hadn’t worked before so instead marketers worked to reinvent the concept of Black Friday as something more positive – particularly from the retailer’s perspective. It turns out that this is how the ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’ story came about – cleverly putting a slightly more positive spin on what had turned into a PR nightmare. This Black Friday – be safe. You know you can do it all online, right?
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