Myths and facts: The true origins of Black Friday


Black Friday is a colloquial term for the Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States.

Black Friday is a colloquial term for the Friday after Thanksgiving in the United States. It traditionally marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the US.

Many stores offer highly discounted prices and open early, sometimes as early as midnight, making it the busiest shopping day of the year. However, the annual retail event is arguably shrouded in mystery and even some conspiracy theories.

The first recorded use of the term Black Friday at a national level occurred in September 1869. But it was not about holiday shopping. History records show that the term was used to describe American Wall Street financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who bought up a significant portion of the nation’s gold to drive up the price.

The pair were not able to re-sell the gold at the inflated profit margins they planned for, and their business venture was unravelled on September 24, 1869. The scheme ultimately came to light on that Friday in September, throwing the stock market into rapid decline and bankrupting everybody from Wall Street millionaires to poor citizens.

The stock market plummeted by 20 per cent, foreign trading ceased and the value of wheat and corn harvests dropped by half for peasants.

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Day resurrected

Much later, in Philadelphia during the late 1950s and early 1960s, locals resurrected the term to refer to the day between Thanksgiving and the Army-Navy football game.

The event would attract massive crowds of tourists and shoppers, putting a lot of strain on local law enforcement agencies to keep everything under control.

It would not be until the late 1980s that the term became synonymous with shopping. Retailers reinvented Black Friday to reflect the back story of how accountants used different colour inks, red for negative earnings and black for positive earnings, to denote a company’s profitability.

Black Friday became the day when stores finally turned a profit.

The name stuck, and since then, Black Friday has evolved into a season-long event that has spawned more shopping holidays, like Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

This year, Black Friday took place on November 25 while Cyber Monday was celebrated on November 28. The two shopping events have become synonymous in recent years due to their proximity.

Black Friday is also celebrated in Canada, some European countries, India, Nigeria, South Africa and New Zealand, among others countries. This year I have noted some of our supermarket chains in Kenya such as Carrefour had Friday offers.

Having dealt with the real history of Black Friday, I would like to mention one myth that has been flaunted in recent times and many people seem to think it has credibility.

When a day, event or object is preceded by the word “black,” it is usually associated with something bad or negative.

Recently, a myth surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s, White Southern plantation owners could buy Black enslaved workers at a discount the day after Thanksgiving.

In November 2018, a social media post falsely claimed that a photo of Black people with shackles around their necks was taken “during the slave trade in America,” and is “the sad history and meaning of Black Friday.”

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The viral Facebook post said Black Friday originated when enslaved people were sold at a discount to boost the economy. The photo was captioned “Black Friday 1904,” and the text that accompanied it read, “Hence Black Friday.”

The year cited in the post was nearly 50 years after the abolition of slavery and the photo that accompanies the post was of prisoners in Australia, not slaves in America.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and information on its News Feed, but this did not prevent some misinformed activists from calling for a boycott of the retail holiday, notwithstanding that the claim has no basis.

We are truly in the age of “alternative facts!”