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The Origin of Black Friday and Other Black Days

The term "Black Friday" first appeared in print in 1610, and it had very little to do with sales or Thanksgiving. The first Black Friday actually referred to tests in schools. 

By
Rebecca Hotchen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
November 23, 2017
Episode #596

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The words "black Friday" to illustrate the origin of black Friday and other black days.

Across the United States, those who are not too replete with their Thanksgiving feast will be braving the crowds in order to secure themselves one of the bargains associated with Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, which is often regarded as the first day of Christmas shopping in the United States. Even on the Thanksgiving-less shores of Britain, we are starting to see this tradition sneak in. Hunting down bargains is all well and good, but we are much more interested in hunting down the histories of words. Which other “black days” have been marked through history, and does “black” used in this way always denote negativity?

Black Friday is seen as a day of huge profit in the world of retail, enough for some to have theorized that its origin is the day’s ability to take a company in debt, or in the red, and pull them back into the black. This origin story may make this the first “black day” where the black is seen to be bringing positive associations, although an earlier theory holds that the name is a reference to the congestion caused in city centres particularly in Philadelphia. This is nonetheless a step away from the disaster and ruin that has typically been carried by “black” in this context. 

When Was the First Black Friday?

Though those working in customer services may wish that this year will be the last time we mark Black Friday, when was the first Black Friday? The earliest evidence for the term found by researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1610. It will surprise no one to hear that this Black Friday had very little to do with sales, or Thanksgiving. The first Black Friday did not refer to a specific Friday, but rather was used in schools to refer to any Friday on which an exam fell. It is something of a comfort to know that, even in the 17th century, exams were regarded with that same familiar dread.

We have found no evidence from before 1951 of Black Friday referring to the day following Thanksgiving, and in this instance its sense was markedly different to how we use the term today. In this context, instead, the day was associated with staff absences from factories following the Thanksgiving holiday. The first citation found for Black Friday in the sense of the start of the Christmas shopping season comes ten years later, in 1961.

Which Other Fridays Have Been Black?

The moniker has been attached to a number of different Fridays in the years between 1610 and 1951. The next one noted in the OED is Friday 6 December 1745, which was the date that the Young Pretender’s landing was announced in London. The Young Pretender was hardly a welcome visitor, but the extent to which his proximity caused panic across the capital is a matter of debate, but this panic—real or a tool of political spin—nonetheless earned the day its dark title.

The next date to be designated a Black Friday noted in the OED was again one of widespread panic: Friday 11 May 1866, saw the failure of the London banking house Overand, Gurney, & Co. On the very next day, it was reported in the Times, with some clairvoyance, that “The day will probably be long remembered in the city of London as the ‘Black Friday.’” This is the first sense of Black Friday with strong financial associations, and it seems these only grow stronger into the 20th century.

The third (and last) Black Friday listed in the OED happened just three years later, on Friday 24 September 1869, when the introduction of a large quantity of government gold into the financial market precipitated a day of financial panic on Wall Street. The mid to late 1860s saw the beginning of a dramatic climb in use of the term Black Friday in both British and US varieties of English, showing the impact of these events on the language.

This is the last Black Friday to be found in the OED, but not the last day to have gained the title in popular use. The majority of those following Black Friday of 1869 echo the sense of financial ruin, or the associations “black days” also carry with loss of life.

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