Black Fridays: A Brief History
November 23, 2018 7:09 AM   Subscribe

CW below the fold: sexual assault. From Teen Vogue by Rebecca Ayres: The day of deals hasn’t been around for that long, but has changed in its time: It now stretches well over a week, heralding the busiest shopping period of the year with deep discounts, hype, and hysteria. The National Retail Federation estimates that more than 164 million plan to shop this weekend, with 116 million buying on Black Friday alone. To put that into perspective, that’s the same number of people estimated to have voted in 2018’s midterm elections. So where did this celebration of commerce come from?

Since the 1800s, stores have been holding post-Thanksgiving sales to take advantage of large crowds still off work from the holiday, but they didn’t use the name Black Friday. It’s thought the phrase was first used in this context in Philadelphia in the 1950s, dubbed by police, bus drivers, and retail staff to describe the gridlock as bargain-hungry shoppers and football fans descended on the city. Cops had to work overtime to deal with the crowds and chaos, and shoplifting spiked in the scurry. The name stuck at a local level and slowly spread throughout the U.S., but wasn’t celebrated and instead held a negative connotation. In fact, one of the earliest uses of the term “Black Friday” appears in a factory management newsletter from 1951, as employers noticed a trend of absenteeism the day after Thanksgiving.

Today Black Friday, which is increasingly becoming Black Weekend and Black Week, is a popular retail promotion around the world, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Sweden, and Poland. Amazon introduced Black Friday to the UK relatively recently but history is filled with Black Fridays that have nothing to do with shopping and everything to do with suffering.

For the Museum of London, Alwyn Collinson details how Black Friday changed the Suffragette struggle: One of the most shocking elements of Black Friday was the repeated sexual assaults of female protesters. One Suffragette noted: "Several times constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowds passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example... My skirt was lifted up as high as possible, and the constable attempted to lift me off the ground by raising his knee. This he could not do, so he threw me into the crowd and incited the men to treat me as they wished".

Suffragette Ada Wright, fifty years old at the time, was featured on the front page of the Daily Mirror on 19 November 1910. She had been struck by a policeman as she tried to enter the House of Commons. The sexual assaults went unremarked upon by the Edwardian press. Although in general journalists described the Suffragettes unsympathetically, blaming them for inciting the violence, the Daily Mirror did note that the police seemed to enjoy the fighting. Home Secretary Winston Churchill was blamed for encouraging the police in their violent response. 119 protesters were arrested, but all were released without charge the next day, on Churchill's orders.

Australian retailers also promote Black Friday, but critics suggest Black Friday there should be called Big Friday. From The Conversation by Daniel May: The 1939 Black Friday bushfires in Victoria were Australia’s worst environmental disaster at the time. Seventy one people were killed and over 1,000 houses were destroyed on January 13, 1939, by fires driven by extreme winds and severe drought.

In the wake of the bushfires, the Victorian government created a Royal Commission led by Judge Leonard Stretton, which collected over 2,500 pages of testimony. ... In a particularly apt passage, Judge Stretton lamented the lack of environmental knowledge of the victims. These words chill my spine every time I read them:

"Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen."

Despite Stretton’s eloquence and the policy changes that followed 1939, Australia has continued to experience bushfire disasters. The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in particular affected many of the same areas and were described by environmental historian Tom Griffiths as “a recurrent nightmare … 1939 all over again”.

The US also had a Black Friday much earlier in its history, when the U.S. gold market collapsed on Friday, September 24, 1869. In brief, a pair of scammers semi-successfully conned President Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to corner the gold market. (Note to US political megathread fans: apparently some things never change. "In the Congressional investigation that followed, General Daniel Butterfield was removed from his post. But loyal Republicans refused to allow the testimony of Virginia Corbin and First Lady Julia Grant.")

This year's Walmart Black Friday, viewed as the “Super Bowl of retail,” started earlier than ever : online at 10 p.m. ET the day before Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than on previous years. The in-store event began at 6 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving Day.

Michael Sainato of The Guardian reports, unsurprisingly, that US retail workers face long hours, poor pay and 'anxiety through the roof' on Black Friday. Amazon has also expanded this holiday promotion to a week. Sainato notes that Amazon workers and others face increases in work volume and demanding schedules, often without extra compensation, during the holidays.

Today Black Friday and its spinoffs are connected to both shopping and suffering, from the toll taken on retail workers to the environmental impact of the most condensed and lucrative shopping period in the US.

According to Sarah Gibbons, writing for National Geographic: An analysis done last year by Vox and the University of California's Climate Lab found that two-day shipping, like that provided for free to Amazon Prime members, left a bigger carbon footprint than slower options that shipped over a week. That's because shipping that gets items to your door faster requires more diesel-using trucks on the ground and less efficient shipping systems. ...

Readily available and bargain-priced clothing can be a benefit to consumers, but too much can harm the environment, especially when it's rapidly bought and sold. One study from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that a truckload of textiles is wasted every second. In addition to requiring resources to make and process, and producing carbon emissions, the discarded material used in so-called “fast fashion” clothing often contains microfibers of plastic that eventually pollute the ocean.

In 2017, Sandra Laville reported in The Guardian that Black Friday sales may cause spikes in air pollution: Stephen Holgate, professor of immunopharmacology at the Medical Research Council, said online shopping contributed to the air pollution crisis. “Vans are key contributors to diesel pollution. In our RCP [Royal College of Physicians] report we show van use continues to increase. Vans are now up to 10-12% of vehicles in our cities. They, along with small goods transport vehicles, are almost all diesel and make up about 12% of diesel emissions in urban settings.

“Supermarket and internet shopping really drives this and unlike people going to the shops themselves, the vans penetrate into quiet residential roads where vulnerable groups like children and the elderly live in large numbers. These vans sit and idle for hours in the road as they wait to deliver more packages, and this is a huge problem.”

Not every retailer is eager to embrace the Black Friday or Cyber Monday. Four years ago, outdoor clothing and equipment retailer REI closed its stores on Black Friday and gave its employees a paid day off. It is doing the same this year and asking customers to go outside instead of sitting in front of a computer. That happens to be highly consistent with REI's marketing and established brand.

A small Swedish online only clothing company called ASKET has also decided to close today. On November 23, 2018, visitors to its website at are redirected to a different page and see the following pop-up message: "Compared to only fifteen years ago, we buy twice as many garments but keep them only half as long. Instead of adding to these sad statistics through heavy discounts, designed to induce poor decision making and a false sense of need we’re closing down the shop for the day and redirecting to our brand-new garment care portal. Today, you can’t buy any new clothing from us, you can only learn how to care for and get the most out of what you already have." Previously.
posted by Bella Donna (26 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Just a note - not all Black Fridays referred in this post refer to the Friday after the US-based holiday of Thanksgiving.

Also, here are all the black days of the week (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Black Monday
Black Tuesday
Black Wednesday
Black Thursday
Black Friday
Black Saturday
Black Sunday
posted by enamon at 7:29 AM on November 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I refuse to leave my house on Black Friday.

First, my hatred of crowds and just people in general outweighs my need to shop for stuff I don't need. Second, the other drivers are often pissed off or half asleep, and I don't want to tempt fate into an accident.

I'd rather hang out at home having tea and playing pillow to the cat.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 7:31 AM on November 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

Someone I follow on Twitter is yelling at Australian businesses that announce 'Black Friday' events reminding them that Black Friday in Australia is in January and is a tragic event.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:32 AM on November 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm just disgusted by the whole affair.

It's the worst aspects of American-style consumerism condensed into a hectic few days. I think what finally pushed me to decide not to participate at all was when retailers started making their employees come in on Thanksgiving itself. There's this awful, empty hypocrisy to it. You can't turn on the TV without seeing an ad by a company "giving thanks" and making noise about blessings and family and togetherness, while at the same time employees are being told that they've got to abandon their own celebrations because of a fucking sale.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:55 AM on November 23, 2018 [18 favorites]

I've always been underwhelmed by the 'deals' advertised for Black Friday so I never bother, not even on Amazon. I'm confused by this background research, though, because it was always taught to me that Black Friday and the holiday season in general is the period in which that retailers aim to go 'into the black' for the year.
posted by simra at 7:59 AM on November 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I kinda miss the old Black Friday events; those that actually started on Friday morning with some kind of "limited stock" of TVs or big items for like $10. People would line up all night and trample through the doors and fight.

The expansion then went exponential...opening at 0600, then midnight, then the day before, all weekend, "cyber Monday," etc.
posted by CrowGoat at 8:06 AM on November 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was today informed by a relative (who tends to believe any old hokum they hear or see online ) that 'Black Friday' actually stems from when Slave Traders tried to sell their unhealthiest most unproductive slaves at discount before the winter weather set in.

I pointed out the various logical reasons why this is more than likely hokum - and wonder of wonder's they actually listened to me. I think the clincher was that the etymology of the word Black to describe People Of Colour is not that old (at least in the U.S.A).

I have managed to not buy a single today and I intend to continue not buying anything all weekend. I'm fortunate in that I don't currently need anything that is on 'sale'.
posted by Faintdreams at 8:11 AM on November 23, 2018

You can't turn on the TV without seeing an ad by a company "giving thanks" and making noise about blessings and family and togetherness, while at the same time employees are being told that they've got to abandon their own celebrations because of a fucking sale.

I’ve always looked forward to seeing this ad from electronics/appliance retailer PC Richard that announced that they were closed on Thanksgiving and throwing shade on those that stayed open.
posted by dr_dank at 8:28 AM on November 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Faintdreams, the slave story is one of the myths kicking around but is not true. As we know, slavery was horrifying enough that every day was a black day for slaves; there was no special sale.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:40 AM on November 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is an excellent day to visit a park or museum. I plan to hit the gym soon for a nice swim without competition for a lane, which is a pleasure in itself. Nobody I know plans to shop.

Everyone who’s been on my list in the past has announced this year that they’re done with stuff. “Don’t give it unless you can drink it,” has been the mantra. Aiming for a year of building memories, not debt.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:29 AM on November 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

If the theme of the post is: don't call it Black Friday because Black Friday is a day that lives in infamy, then I'd say it's the perfect thing to call it.

There are lots of post-hoc reasons people have come up with for the name, but when I worked retail 15-20 years ago it was just the plain meaning: an awful day (that happened to be a Friday).
posted by dbx at 9:45 AM on November 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've always heard that retailers spend most of the year at a financial loss (literally the books awash in red ink) and that this day, the level of commerce will bring the top line out of the red at last and the rest of the year will be profit. The shift from a top line of red to black was supposed to be the source of the name 'Black Friday'. Apocryphal? Maybe, but I like this one and I'm sticking with it.
posted by so.i.herd.u.luv.butter at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

The UK Black Friday used to be the last Friday before Xmas because so many people would go out and get pissed off their heads that there would be even more pressure on police and NHS than normal.

Amazon started doing a sale on American Black Friday 8 years ago. People predicted it would flop because
a) we unsurprisingly don't have Thanksgiving
b) we already had autumn clothing sales, and the big event of Boxing Day sales, a post-xmas day shopping binge when you're fed up of being stuck inside with the rellies, so why not go traipse the shops for a discount crappy sofa (much like Thanksgiving, I think)

It didn't really take off because Amazon didn't do that much with it, but then Walmart got involved a couple of years later (they own Asda in the UK) and started doing the cheap tellies thing. And sparked massive brawls and trampling. The rest of the high street took notice, widely advertised piddling discounts the following year with security guards and everything and it fell pretty much flat. But now everybody is doing it, first 'cyber Monday' and now it's basically 2 weeks solid of SALE SALE SALE DISCOUNT MASSIVE BARGAIN SALE SALE SALE, while the actual discounts are pretty much a non-event, in fact prices are often lower earlier in the year. But it's MASSSSSSSIVE, because people like to shop and it's a reason to go do that with the excuse that they're making savings on xmas gifts, and oh the people and the traffic and the relentless advertising and it seems to run continuously from October to February and it only started like a couple of years ago and Christ on a bike it's just suck, and people suck, and Black Friday sucks, and I don't even work retail.

Plus I needed to order a few pots of some boring, ordinary, non-discounted paint, nothing to do with Black Frimonth, but now it's going to take 4 days to get here because of all the frenzied BUY BUY BUY BUY.

Thanks a bunch, Obama US megacorps.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 10:39 AM on November 23, 2018

I won't be running out shopping or ordering a bunch of stuff from Amazon. But I work in sound and music and for whatever reason, software developers/publishers have really hitched their wagon to this week. For a lot of licenses, this is the only time of the year they go on discount. I spent a small fortune this week.
posted by Evstar at 10:45 AM on November 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

At least with most software and licenses, you're not making someone stand at a register on their holiday or work extra hours at a warehouse. Unless you're buying physical copies, I suppose.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:17 AM on November 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

I can't believe I did something this dumb, but I did -- I bought train tickets leaving this afternoon from Freeport, Maine. For those of you unfamiliar with it, this little ol' Maine town is home to the L.L. Bean anchor store, which never closes, and about 40 outlet stores. The train station is right in town with all that. I honestly thought I was going to be able to PARK MY CAR at the train station, or indeed, anywhere in Freeport, on Black Friday. Needless to say I am back at home now instead of on the train. Sheesh.
posted by JanetLand at 11:29 AM on November 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

When Black Friday falls you know it's got to be
Don't let it fall on me
posted by kirkaracha at 12:24 PM on November 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm in the UK and I've bought some stuff - stuff I had looked at and wanted anyway, but is now cheaper because I waited. I did order it online, hadn't thought about the delivery vans, but I was going to have to order it all online anyway because it wasn't in store!

I am also working retail for some extra cash and it's been... fine? There wasn't a holiday for us anyway, so it's just busier than usual which I enjoy more than standing about when it's slow. Maybe it's worse elsewhere, but so far my experience has been "busy but civilised." Apart from the dumb name, it just feels like boxing day come early, and I've always shopped the Christmas sales because I've never had much money for boring things like clothes / bed sheets / frying pans.

That said, my friend has worked retail on boxing day in an entirely different UK city and said it was horrible and stressful and aggressive, and if my experience was anything like her stories I would stay home and darn the holes in my sheets instead.
posted by stillnocturnal at 12:49 PM on November 23, 2018

I am regretting that I framed the beginning of the FFP as a story about shopping. It partly is, of course, but OMG, has anyone read the link above to the Museum of London and its story about women marching to the House of Commons and getting assaulted? Between the heartbreak created by patriarchy throughout history and the horrors of late-state capitalism, how do any of us have time to digest our dinners? (I wish I could have a pet. Pets make everything better.)
posted by Bella Donna at 1:34 PM on November 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

It turns out Black Friday has arrived in the rest of Europe. I have had emails from various retailers including the online shopping arm of the local supermarket chain inviting me to enjoy their discount offers...I live in Switzerland
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:21 PM on November 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

In the Bay Area, Black Friday results in mad crowds at the local climbing gym, possibly because it's raining and thus all the out-of-town visitors cannot be taken hiking.

I did witness a young dude send his first-time-climber mother up a 5.10c, which was a ballsy move in his part. She'll be lucky if she can open a door for the next 48 hours.
posted by suelac at 3:26 PM on November 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I went out yesterday in Chicago, and it was actually quite nice--probably because all the crowdswarms were around the big box stores. That made it easier to get into the regular stores. (Also, ice skating in front of Wrigley Field!)
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:56 AM on November 24, 2018

I avoid shopping as much as possible between Thanksgiving and New Year's (gotta give it a week past Christmas to miss the crowds returning items for store credit or cash).

However, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook yesterday, which was a take I hadn't considered before:

"In 2008 [during the economic recession], there were a lot of people who were getting away with things if they were from a certain privileged race or class, and the working class were left to pay the bill. They were the ones facing joblessness and losing homes, and there were racialized predatory lending schemes in black and Latino communities."

On the other hand, this article doesn't address the economics of having retail workers (who are often barely making a living wage, if that) give up their holiday so that others can stampede in search of a Christmas deal. So on balance, High Capitalism is still terrible.
posted by basalganglia at 1:39 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Happy belated Buy Nothing Day, everyone.
posted by gusandrews at 5:06 PM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by homunculus at 1:22 PM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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