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A Complete History of 'Black Friday'

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Today, the phrase “Black Friday” is synonymous with the hoards of U.S. shoppers who descend upon retail businesses, shopping centers, and downtown shopping hubs in the hopes of finding the best deals on all of their holiday gifts during the one-day shopping festival.

However, Black Friday has not always meant marked-down TV and toys.

The history of the phrase Black Friday and where it originated is not set in stone, but research puts the basic—and relatively contemporary—timeline of the massive shopping phenomenon in simple enough order.

An 1860s Gold Crisis

Black Friday, as its name might suggest, originally marked an awful day for the U.S. economy. The phrase initially referred to the day the American gold market crashed on Friday, Sept. 24, 1869.

As the story goes, two Wall Street financial speculators, Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, bought up as much gold as they could in hopes of driving up U.S. gold prices and selling their positions at a massive profit. The idea was simple enough, but Fisk and Gould’s run on the gold market ended up causing a substantial crash.

When things got out of hand, President Grant decided to have the U.S. Treasury sell $4 million worth of gold on the next trading day. News circulated quickly, which caused Wall Street and the stock market to tumble. “Possibly no avalanche ever swept with more terrible violence,” the New York Herald later wrote of the day that would become known as Black Friday.

In The Black

Early 20th-century holiday shopping trends helped shape the modern use of the term Black Friday. The idea and phrase stems from the basic terms that businesses use to mark profitability. “Black” meant retail stores and companies were able to finally get “into the black,” or turn a profit, when shoppers began their holiday spending.

Nevertheless, this is still not the real genesis of all of the Black Friday ads and deals most U.S. retail businesses run today.

Upset Police

The modern phrase related to this day of frenzied shopping seems to trace back to upset police officers. Starting in the 1950s, Philadelphia police began to refer to the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” and their reasoning was clear.

The department came to dread the influx of suburban shoppers that flooded the city, as well as the tourists who began arriving for the Army-Navy football game, which was often played in the city. Philadelphia police officers resented the long hours and increased congestion the day after Thanksgiving brought.

The phrase caught fire in the area quickly, with retail stores trying unsuccessfully to flip the phrase into a happy term meant to encourage more shoppers to come in on the days following Thanksgiving.

Black Friday Shopping

Still, the official Black Friday deals that the likes of Best Buy (BBY - Free Report) , Target (TGT - Free Report) , Walmart (WMT - Free Report) , Macy’s (M - Free Report) , and almost every U.S. retailer promote did not catch on until the 1980s.

There was no official start to the current trend of discounts and hype, but most place it sometime near the tail end of the 80s, when retailers found a way to rebrand the phrase into a sales-producing positive.

Since the 80s, Black Friday has morphed into something insane. Deals now start on Thanksgiving Day and run all the way through Small Business Saturday/Sunday into Cyber Monday. The shopping holiday has even spread to the U.K. and places that do not celebrate Thanksgiving.

However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s, after years of marketing, that Black Friday overtook the Friday before Christmas as the most popular shopping day of the year.

Now, Black Friday has evolved into its own Thanksgiving shopping season that tends to help retail stocks surge during the last two weeks of November. In fact, since 2007, retail is the top U.S. equities sector during the week before and after Black Friday, according to a CNBC analysis.

This year—despite a wave of pushback and an overall retail shift—the National Retail Federation estimates 164 million people will shop on Black Friday, which is up from 87 million in 2014.

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