Story at a glance

  • Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, marking the beginning of the holiday shopping season.
  • There are many stories behind the origin, but some of the less popular ones arise from a negative connotation to the term.
  • One origin story involved the Black Friday of the gold panic.

As Harvey Dent once said, “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." When it comes to Black Friday, a day that has come to symbolize the excess of American capitalism, there’s a whole series of spinoffs: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday. 

Black Friday has taken on so many iterations that it’s hard to trace them all back. And while the term Black Friday has been used to describe a number of events, several threads lead back to the gold panic on Friday, September 24, 1869. 


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The gold market crashed on that particular Black Friday as the result of a conspiracy by financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk, according to historians. The United States stopped using the gold standard during the Civil War, but gold was still the official currency of international trade. Cue the California Gold Rush in 1848, when hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the West Coast in search of gold.

But by the mid-1850s, much of the gold had been mined and what was left was increasingly difficult to retrieve. After the end of the Civil War a decade later, the federal debt was mounting and the new currency of the United States was still unstable. Gould and Fisk, who had some ties within the federal government, conspired to corner the gold market, according to The New York Times archives, buying up what they could. 


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On Black Friday, the price of gold reached between $160 and $162 before Treasury Secretary George Boutwell sold $4 million in gold, having realized what the two were up to. The price dropped to $133 in minutes, causing stock prices to fall by 20 percent, agricultural exports by 50 percent and some brokerages to go completely bankrupt. 

The negative connotation of the term "Black Friday" carried over for decades, until the mid-1900s, when it was used by police in Philadelphia and Rochester to describe the beginning of holiday crowds and traffic, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. It got picked up by the New York Times and then suddenly — it was everywhere. 

Retailers weren’t thrilled by the common explanation for the name: that retailers were in the red until holiday shopping began, when they went into "the black" and made profit. But one way or another, it stuck. Hero or villain? It’s hard to say.  


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Published on Nov 25, 2020