Why is it called Black Friday? The most common answer is that on the day after Thanksgiving, it’s said that retailers go from being in the red to being in the black, with their profits for the year riding on just how much they can sell before Christmas.
But in fact, the earliest references to that day as Black Friday had little to do with business success—they were about the unusually high rates of work absenteeism the day after Thanksgiving. The shift of the day’s connotation from negative to positive points to the commercialization of holidays, and is an example of how the meaning of a holiday can shift over time, often as a result of contentious debates.
The first common uses of the term “Black Friday” referred to two devastating stock-market crashes that occurred on Fridays—one on September 24, 1869, when the price of gold collapsed, and another on September 19, 1873, leading to a decade-long depression. In the following century, the crash of 1929 started another depression, but it happened on a Tuesday, so naturally it became known as “Black Tuesday.” Calling a dramatically bad day “black” became a familiar turn of phrase, especially when it came to Fridays, and the label was applied even to some cases internationally, such as a November 1910 incident in England when police used force against about 300 demonstrating suffragettes, and to Australian brushfires in 1939. Before it took on its modern meaning, the phrase “Black Friday” had a negative ring to it, and wasn’t even related to Thanksgiving.