Why is it called Black Friday? Here's the real history behind America's biggest shopping holiday

Holiday names are usually pretty straightforward. New Year's, Thanksgiving and — perhaps least creatively, the 4th of July — all have origins that are fairly easy to figure out.

But Black Friday isn't so simple. Depending on what story you believe, America's most famous shopping day is either named after a financial crisis, a concerned police force or, according to some theories, 19th-century slave owners. 

So, what's the holiday's real history? It's tough to say for sure who the first person to ever utter the words "Black Friday" might have been, but here's everything we know about its origins. 

Where did the name come from?

The original "Black Friday" was almost certainly not considered a holiday.

According to the History Channel, the name was first used to describe an 1869 financial crisis, in which corruption and stock fraud caused the U.S. gold market to collapse entirely. That day — widely credited to the faulty investments of two infamous Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk — saw the market plummet 20 percent in a single day.

It was nearly a century later that the name had anything to do with the day after Thanksgiving. In the 1960s, police in Philadelphia started using the term to describe the hectic, overcrowded day that came as families rushed into the city ahead of the weekend's annual Army-Navy football game. 

"It was not a happy term," retail scholar Michael Lisicky told KYW-TV in 2011. "The stores were just too crowded, the streets were crowded, the buses and the police were just on overcall and extra duty."

How did it become associated with shopping?

As it turned out, many of the football fans rushing into the streets of Philadelphia were also coming for another reason — shopping.

The city's retailers wanted to capitalize on the increased traffic, so they tried to erase the negative connotation around "Black Friday," even briefly attempting to call it "Big Friday." But the name didn't stick, so advertisers just started embracing the original nickname. Newspaper ads were using "Black Friday" to call in eager shoppers as early as 1966, according to the Telegraph

Others joined in, and by 1975, bus drivers and taxi drivers were also using the term as a way to mark the traffic-laden day they dreaded each year. 

By the 1980s, the phrase began spreading nationwide, with retailers in every city setting their biggest deals for the day after Thanksgiving. Things completely took off from there, and now Black Friday is a $6 billion affair, with more than 160 million Americans swarming to shops during Thanksgiving weekend in 2018. 

What about those other theories?

Some explanations of Black Friday claim that the holiday references a 19th-century term for the day after Thanksgiving, during which plantation owners could buy slaves at discount prices. This theory has been soundly rejected, though, as there's little to no evidence such a day ever existed. 

But the holiday has found its way into other historical moments. In 1910, suffragette demonstrators marched on a Friday in London, the culmination of a decades-long campaign by British women fighting for voting rights. Police and many male bystanders responded with violence against the women, securing the protest's nickname as "Black Friday."

There have also been more lighthearted uses of the term, including the Disney-centric "Black Friday" of 1993. That day, a creative team from Pixar Animation Studios brought Disney executives an early copy of the film "Toy Story." The higher-ups were apparently so unhappy with the state of the project that they almost canceled it, leading many involved in the movie to refer to the day as "Black Friday."

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