From The History Channel
On April 1, 1700, English pranksters begin popularizing the annual tradition of April Fools’ Day by playing practical jokes on each other.
Although the day, also called All Fools’ Day, has been celebrated for several centuries by different cultures, its exact origins remain a mystery.
Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to 1582, when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, as called for by the Council of Trent in 1563. People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.
These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as poisson d’avril (April fish), said to symbolize a young, “easily hooked” fish and a gullible person.
April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain during the 18th century. In Scotland, the tradition became a two-day event, starting with “hunting the gowk,” in which people were sent on phony errands (gowk is a word for cuckoo bird, a symbol for fool) and followed by Tailie Day, which involved pranks played on people’s derrieres, such as pinning fake tails or “kick me” signs on them.
Outrageous Pranks in History
Man in a Botttle
In January of 1749, London newspapers advertised that in an upcoming show, a man would squeeze his entire body into a wine bottle and then sing while inside of it. The ad promised that, “during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle.” The ad promised the show would feature other tricks as well, including communicating with the dead.
Legend has it that the ad was the result of a bet between the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. Reportedly, the duke bet that he could advertise something impossible and still “find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” And apparently, he was right. The night of the show, every seat in the house was filled, but no performer ever showed up. Realizing they had been duped, the audience rioted.
The Great Spaghetti Harvest
One of the most famous April Fools’ Day pranks of all time is the BBC’s famous “spaghetti harvest” segment. On April 1, 1957, a news broadcaster told his British audience that Ticino, a Swiss region near the Italian border, had had “an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop” that year. The camera cut to footage of people picking spaghetti off of trees and bushes, then sitting down at a table to eat some of their “real, home-grown spaghetti.”
At the time, spaghetti wasn’t necessarily a dish that British people would’ve known about. That doesn’t mean that no one realized the segment was a prank—some viewers were upset the BBC had aired a fictional segment during a serious news program. But other viewers reportedly asked about how they could grow their own spaghetti at home.
1856: The Tower of London hosts a lion washing extravaganza
In the days leading up to April 1, 1856, London residents received an official-looking invitation printed on Tower of London stationery and bearing a crimson wax seal. Signed “Herbert de Grassen,” supposedly a “senior warden” at the popular tourist attraction and prison, the leaflet offered admission to “view the annual ceremony of washing the lions” on April 1. Such an event could have indeed taken place two decades earlier, but the Tower’s famous menagerie—which for 600 years featured bears, leopards, lions and other dangerous beasts—had closed in 1835. Nevertheless, a certain number of would-be spectators showed up for the display, only to learn they’d fallen prey to an April Fools’ hoax.
1972: The Loch Ness Monster surfaces
Very few April Fools’ Days go by without some Nessie-related hoax, but in 1972 a widely published photograph convinced many that Loch Ness’ elusive dweller had finally made an appearance—sadly, dead rather than alive. It turned out that a prankster from Yorkshire’s Flamingo Park Zoo had dumped the body of a bull elephant seal in the lake. He had only intended to play a joke on his coworkers, but the “news” quickly went viral.
1976: Gravity takes a hiatus
On April 1, 1976, the BBC pulled off yet another of its many April Fools’ Day pranks. Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore told listeners that at 9:47 a.m. that day, the temporary alignment of Pluto and Jupiter would cause a reduction in Earth’s gravity, allowing people to briefly levitate. Sure enough, at 9:48, hundreds of enthralled callers flooded the lines with reports that they had floated in the air.
1992: Richard Nixon makes a comeback
Tricky Dick running for president—again? That’s what National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” program revealed on April 1, 1992. The segment even included a clip in which the disgraced politician intoned, “I never did anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” As outraged listeners called in to express their dismay, the station admitted the announcement was a hoax. Comedian Rich Little, known for his spot-on impression of the 37th president, had played the role of Nixon.
1998: Lefties get their own burger
In a full-page advertisement in USA Today, Burger King unveiled a new menu item specifically engineered for southpaws: the Left-Handed Whopper. According to the fast food chain, the burger’s condiments were rotated 180 degrees to better suit the 1.4 million lefties who patronized its restaurants. Thousands of customers requested the new burger, swallowing an April Fools’ Day whopper as they ordered their Whopper.