Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 27, 2013
Black Friday is almost upon us again this year and the yearly mythos about where this idiom originated is in full swing already. Most people are of the mistaken belief that Black Friday was a term coined by retailers to describe the one day each year when they turned a profit according to the accounting records.
While that’s an interesting and plausible explanation for the expression, it’s not exactly accurate.
Back in the 1960s, if you lived in Philadelphia, you know that the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving was a day of snarled traffic, overcrowded parking garages, and overworked police officers if you dared go into the downtown core. It got to be so much of a problem that police officers began to refer to the post-Thanksgiving days as Black Friday and Black Saturday.
On Black Friday, officers were forced to work 12-hour shifts where most of that shift was spent directing traffic to help unclog the car and pedestrian jams that impeded the flow of traffic. Retailers, who were looking to encourage shoppers to come out on that Friday despite the terrible traffic, tried (and failed) to have the day called “Big Friday.” But the effort failed.
Back in January 1966, in the American Philatelist newspaper, a Philadelphia merchant by the name of Earl Apfelbaum, a dealer in rare stamps, wrote this about the day:
“Black Friday” is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.
Even earlier than that, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin used the idiom to describe the day after Thanksgiving. In the November 25, 1994 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Joseph P. Barrett told a story about how the Friday after Thanksgiving came to be known as Black Friday.
In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin.
In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term “Black Friday” to describe the terrible traffic conditions.
Later in the article he added this:
The following year, [Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown] put out a press release describing the day as ”Big Friday.” But Kleger and I held our ground, and once more said it was ”Black Friday.” And of course we used it year after year.
The funny thing about that is that the issue of traffic congestion on the Friday following Thanksgiving wasn’t an issue back in November 1951 when Black Friday was described by Industrial Relations Editor M.J. Murphy for the magazine “Factory Management and Maintenance” in an article entitled, “Tips to Good Human Relations for Factory Executives.” What M.J. Murphy wrote was as follows:
“Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis” is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the “Black Friday” comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick — and can prove it.
The story of Black Friday being a term coined by retailers to describe the one day each year when they turned a profit according to the accounting records is after-the-fact marketing spin that started showing up decades later to put a positive shine on a negative phrase.
Of course, there have been other Black Fridays throughout history, and most of those have had to do with financial matters and massacres. But Black Friday — the one that falls the day after American Thanksgiving — has its roots firmly planted in Philadelphia.