Black Friday might bring to mind good deals and shopping stampedes, but its history actually has nothing to do with that. What it does have is American greed, chaos and speculation, beginning with the first incarnation of Black Friday on Sep. 24, 1869.
At the height of the Gilded Age, two crooked opportunists by the names of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk were fishing for gold. It was right after the Civil War, and the American economy was in shambles.
Gould and Fisk hoarded as much of the nation’s gold as they could, driving the price up and making an enormous profit. It’s as if two people controlled the entire toilet paper supply of America when COVID first hit and charged high prices.
The plan paid off, with Gould and Fisk taking a cool $60 million to the bank after their shopping spree for gold, according to History.com.
They also rubbed shoulders with President Grant’s brother-in-law, using their political connections to prevent the government from releasing gold into the market.
However, on that fateful day in September of 1869, President Grant changed his mind. He decided to introduce millions of dollars of gold into the circulation, causing the price of gold to plummet.
Gould and Fisk’s scheme failed miserably, and the drop in the price of gold hit many Wall Street financiers, causing them to lose millions. The day came to be known as “Black Friday.”
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How Black Friday evolved
The next time Black Friday was widely used was in the city of Philadelphia.
Even in the 1950s, Philadelphia was crazy about sports.
Ahead of an Army-Navy football game on Saturday, shoppers crowded the city, creating mobs of people, some of them breaking in and stealing merchandise. Philadelphia cops had to work extra shifts to deal with the extreme crowds, dubbing the infamous day as “Black Friday,” according to History.com.
Since then, the term has developed new meanings for retailers.
“The term Black Friday, it goes back to ensuring that retailers would be able to finish the year in the black with strong profits versus in the red,” says Angeli Gianchandani, Practitioner in Residence of Brand Marketing at the Pompea College of Business at University New Haven.
However, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always signified shopping and heavy spending, even in the Great Depression during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.
“For the first years he’s president, Thanksgiving is the last Thursday of November,” explains Bruce Forbes, author of “America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories.” The Friday after Thanksgiving, while not then called Black Friday, had already been designated the natural beginning for Christmas shopping.
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After a few hard winters toward the end of the Great Depression, “FDR was pressured to move Thanksgiving up from the last Thursday to the next to last Thursday — for the sole economic reason of expanding the Christmas shopping season,” says Forbes.
With the rise of online shopping, which has only intensified due to the pandemic, FDR’s original ambitions may be coming true.
According to Gianchandani, the concept of Black Friday is now getting phased out and being replaced with “Black November” as retailers hope to capture the sales throughout all of November and begin advertising earlier and earlier each year.
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In fact, the concept of Black Friday is becoming more irrelevant and evolving over time, Gianchandani says.
With companies like Amazon, Gianchandani points out, massive online retailers can create shopping demand through events like Prime Day even in the middle of the year. Plus, more sophisticated marketing and analytics tools allows stores to reach customers with just a few clicks anytime, regardless of whether or not it is Black Friday.
The term Black Friday has had many metamorphoses over the years, going from a speculative gold scheme to a Philadelphia stampede to a retailer boon. As shopping technology advances, Black Friday may once again evolve into a new meaning.
Contributing: Lindsay Deutsch of the USA TODAY Network
Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.