A Short History of Black Fridays

Today, the term “Black Friday” is most commonly associated with the day after Thanksgiving, the so-called biggest shopping day of the year (although, according to a report by Business Insider, the 2016 the biggest shopping day in terms of sales was actually December 23, and the biggest in terms of number of customers was December 17, also known as Super Saturday–but neither of these days capture the media’s attention quite like Black Friday).

This usage, however, traces back only as far as the mid-twentieth century, at which point there are multiple competing theories about how the day earned the name. One of the most common is that Black Friday is the day that retailers begin to earn a profit for the year (and therefore go from being in the red to being in the black), although, according to another report by Business Insider, a more likely explanation is that the term was first used by Philadelphia police officers who had to work long, exhausting shifts on the day after Thanksgiving because so many people, who had the day off from work and school, went out shopping all at once.

But the term has other uses, which existed long before retail shopping holidays and fights in mall parking lots. For example, it is often used to describe the day of a financial crash (provided, of course, that it happens on a Friday–otherwise it will be named after a different day of the week, e.g. Black Tuesday at the beginning of the Great Depression). A number of financial crashes have earned the name, but only three will be discussed here.

The first of the three is May 11, 1866, the start of the Panic of 1866. According to an article by Joshua Gooch, the Panic began when Overend, Gurney and Company, a London discount bank, failed, setting off a chain reaction of bank runs and other failures.

Three years later, another Black Friday occurred, this time across the Atlantic, in New York City. Black Friday, September 24, 1869–perhaps the most infamous singular Black Friday event, as it is still the one listed under ‘Black Friday’ the Encyclopaedia Britannica–was the result of an attempt by financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the market for gold and force the price to rise.

Jumping forward in time to 1989, past when Black Friday began to be used to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, another Black Friday financial panic occurred. This time, it also happened to be Friday the 13th. According to an article on CNBC, the crash was the result of a failed buyout of United Airlines, which sent a shock through the market for junk bonds.

On Black Friday this year, as people finish their turkey early, camp out in front of stores, and prepare for heated confrontations over parking spaces and children’s toys, maybe they will take a moment to be thankful for Black Fridays that are about taking money out of the bank to spend it, and not to bury it in their backyard.

Works Cited

Gooch, Joshua. “On ‘Black Friday,’ 11 May 1866.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. Retrieved November 12, 2017.

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