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The Evolution of Black Friday: A History of Commerce, Culture, and Criticism

How a financial crisis and crowded streets gave rise to the year's biggest shopping day

By Rajeshkumar GPublished 3 months ago 3 min read
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The Evolution of Black Friday: A History of Commerce, Culture, and Criticism
Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash

Introduction:

Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving in the United States, is known for heavy shopping, remarkable sales, and marking the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The origins of Black Friday are not commonly understood. Its history is intricate and interesting, demonstrating a series of events and meanings that have shifted over time. Beyond the current hunt for deals, there is a deep story that mirrors different elements of American culture and economic patterns. In this piece, we will explore the beginnings of Black Friday, its changes across the years, and its place in today's consumer world.

The Origins:

The phrase "Black Friday" originally referred to a financial crisis. On September 24, 1869, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, two notoriously harsh Wall Street financiers, led to a market crash by trying to monopolize the gold market. The day was thus called Black Friday, a name signifying disaster.

A different story lies behind the term's association with retail. During the 1950s, Philadelphia police named the chaos following Thanksgiving Black Friday, as masses of suburbanites and tourists came to the city before the annual Army-Navy football game on Saturday. Officers had to work long hours to manage the crowds and traffic, thus the term Black Friday.

The Evolution:

Black Friday's negative associations started to fade when Philadelphia retailers noticed a surge in post-Thanksgiving sales. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, stores began exploiting this increase by offering large discounts to commence the holiday shopping season. The goal was to attract more customers and turn a profit, moving from 'the red' into 'the black' – accounting terms where black ink signifies profit and red ink indicates a loss.

This tactic was effective, and by the 1980s, Black Friday had become a widespread retail event in the United States, with stores opening early and promoting sales. It was during this era that the positive "in the black" story took over as the prevalent rationale for the term, even if it wasn't the original meaning.

The Phenomenon:

By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Black Friday had turned into a cultural event, known for long queues, packed shops, and sometimes frantic dashes for top deals. The rise of the internet and e-commerce brought about Cyber Monday as Black Friday's digital counterpart, offering consumers online deals. This expanded the holiday shopping period even further.

As Black Friday deals began to appear globally, the day gained new meaning outside of its American origins. Retailers worldwide embraced the concept, using it as a sales day to increase revenue and provide discounts.

The Criticism and Adaptation:

Despite its success, Black Friday has attracted criticism for promoting excessive consumerism, the environmental toll of mass production and waste, and concerns over workers' rights and safety during the buying surge. In turn, some brands and shoppers have started advocating for sustainable and ethical buying, or avoiding Black Friday sales entirely.

Furthermore, retailers have adapted to shifting consumer preferences by spreading out sales over the whole month of November, reducing the immediacy of Black Friday but making the sales period more accessible for shoppers and businesses.

Conclusion:

The history of Black Friday is complex and reflects economic movements, cultural changes, and consumer habits. From its beginnings in economic distress and city traffic jams to its status as an international retail event, Black Friday has consistently evolved. It stands as a day for discounts and a symbol prompting discussions about consumerism. As society changes, the story of Black Friday will too, mirroring our shifting values and the ways we interact with our environment. Whether it is welcomed or rejected, Black Friday undoubtedly occupies an important spot in the yearly cycle, signaling a time of transition, contemplation, and for many, planned purchasing.

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