Black Friday may seem like a modern materialistic phenomenon – indeed, this is only the second year in the UK where it has received a lot of publicity. But the term goes back much further than one may think and applies to a lot of different events in history.
Today, ‘Black Friday’ is the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers offer reduced prices which is supposed to get customers into a frenzy on the high street (although this year the majority of the British public went online instead). However, going back even further, ‘Black Friday’ actually originates from the seventeenth-century: 1610 to be precise. It had little do with slashed prices or the transaction of goods but applied to any Friday in which an exam fell in schools. It was only in the twentieth century when it began to have associations with Thanksgiving: typically, black Friday was the day when employees were absent from work the day after the American holiday. It was in 1961 when ‘Black Friday’ was associated with shopping and preparation for Christmas.
There have been many Black Fridays in history – notably, on Friday 6 December 1745 when The Young Pretender (Charles Edward Stuart) landed in London. On Friday 11 May 1866, the London banking house Overand, Gurney & Co collapsed prompting the Times to say that ‘The day will probably be long remembered in the city of London as the “Black Friday”.’ This was probably the first time the phrase had links with finance. Three years later, on Friday 24 September 1869, there was an introduction of a large amount of gold into the markets causing financial panic, linking the day to the phrase.
Other days have also been labelled ‘black’, such as Monday, more specifically Easter Monday which was labelled ‘black’ as early as 1389, possibly referring to a bad storm on Easter Monday 1360 which lead to the deaths of many soldiers in Edward III’s army during the Hundred Years’ War. Another theory suggests Monday was so-called ‘black’ because of the 1209 massacre of English settlers on Easter Monday. In 1735, Monday was called ‘black’ as it referred to the day after school holidays. A more recent Black Monday refers to Monday 19 October 1987 and the stock market crash. Whichever theory is most accurate, ‘black’ in this sense suggested that the day was unlucky or unpleasant, which to some it still is i.e. the day after the weekend. Interestingly, another colour also refers to Monday – blue, referring to a day people choose not to work, possibly recovering from the weekend's excessives.
Furthermore, ‘Black Wednesday’ referred to the 16 September 1992 when there was a great surge of sales of the pound. ‘Black Thursday’ marks he Wall Street Crash on the 16 September 1929 and the first day of panic selling on the NYSE, followed by ‘Black Tuesday’ the following week. ‘Black Saturday’ took place on 10 September 1547 and denotes the day of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh which saw Scotland defeated.
But why assign a usually negative colour to a day? A popular theory suggests the surge in sales was reflected by the colour of balance sheets – a day when retailers would transition from being ‘in the red’ to ‘being in the black’ (turning a profit). Historically, red and black ink symbolised credit and debit. However, this theory is probably too good to be true and probably does originate from ‘black’ being used to apply to days of disaster. Perhaps the negative connotations of ‘black’ for our modern sense of ‘black Friday’ refer to the chaos in which it creates in shops and surrounding areas as well as the holes left in our finances in the new year.