Why is the shopping day after Thanksgiving called ‘Black Friday’?

In our Q&As, historians and experts answer your historical conundrums. On the shopping day known as 'Black Friday', millions descend on the shops to spy out the best bargains. How did the day get its name?

Shoppers in Liverpool during the 1960s

Black Friday has been adopted as the unofficial opening to the Christmas shopping period. It all began in the United States as a day of ‘doorbuster’ sales the day after Thanksgiving but increasingly, Britain is getting into the swing of things – sometimes literally, as brawls and all-out fights are quite common among scrapping shoppers.

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Retailers love the day of discounts as billions are spent within a matter of hours, but there is one organisation for whom the day brings nothing but despair: the police.

In 1966, the Philadelphia Police Department grew so frustrated by the congested streets, traffic jams and regular tussles that, it’s believed, they coined the name ‘Black Friday’ in the hope of dissuading people from heading to the shops. It completely failed, but the name stuck.

Understandably, retailers weren’t keen on the name – it had strong associations with the Great Depression of the 1930s, signalled by Black Thursday – so they tried to reinvent the image of the Black Friday frenzy. The ‘black’, it was argued, referred to the ledgers used by retailers. For the majority of the year, shops would be ‘in the red’ (losing money) but Black Friday indicated the moment when most retailers would start making a profit, or going ‘in the black’.

So that is how Black Friday got its name. There is no evidence to the regularly espoused theory that it went back to a 19th century tradition when slave owners would sell their weak or elderly slaves at low prices. Fortunately, that story is purely apocryphal.

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine