April Fools’ Day from the Archives: A Look at Past Pranks, Hoaxes and Satire
BY JIM MALVEN
The Columns digs into campus newspaper archives to see how April Fools’ Day customs and news coverage changed over the last century and a half.
Last Friday, April 1, was the annual day of tricks and practical jokes known as April Fools’ Day, and even if you fell victim to any household pranks involving plastic wrap or fake spiders, you may have had a good laugh at Netflix’s John Stamos takeover or Google’s Mic Drop (if you weren’t sending an important email).
With many hoaxes circulating online April 1, Abby Ohlhesier and Caitlin Dewy of The Washington Post described April Fools’ Day as “the worst day of the entire year for anyone trying to cover news on the Internet.”
However, the presence of trick headlines and practical jokes far outdate the invention of the Internet. Although its origins are blurry at best, most historians agree that people began to regularly participate in April 1 buffoonery during the 18th century.
An 1876 Westminster Monthly article from the archives titled “April Fool!” gives some insight to how the longstanding tradition was celebrated in the past.
Other April-Fools’-themed articles, one from 1951 and the other from 2010 were located in Westminster’s newspaper archives.
The three articles, including their April Fools’ Day jokes and satirical content, are detailed below.
Westminster Monthly: April 1876
The April 1876 issue of the Westminster Monthly is one of the oldest editions of Westminster’s student newspaper, which first appeared sometime in the 1870s, and is among the oldest materials contained in the archives. The publication, which has advertisements for carriage companies, was printed just 25 years after the college was established and more than a century before women were allowed to attend Westminster.
Its “April Fool!” column describes how students skipped class and pranked their professors on April 1. The author states that “students reported absent,” and jokingly makes it clear by adding that the “Head Prof. of Science gave the walls a lecture on scientific resonance.”
While events included “an eighty-year-old preparatory throwing mud balls on the campus,” it was the Greek professor who earned “the loud applause of ‘April Fool.’”
As early as 1876, April Fools’ Day tricks were common at Westminster and continued to be documented in other editions of the paper.
The Columns/The Pillars: April 1, 1951
The April 1, 1951 edition of the college newspaper has two parts: a student-written section called The Columns and a professor-written section called The Pillars, each of which is meant to poke fun at the opposite party. The entire edition, which is bright pink, consists of satirical articles with false headlines penned by pseudonymous reporters and advertisements for fake items and businesses.
The top of the newspaper’s front page reads “Extra April Fools’ Extra,” and the bottom of the page has an upside-down Columns logo with the words “The Columns” and an image of the six columns that supported the original Westminster Hall.
In jest of Westminster tradition, the top headline proclaims “Joseph Stalin To Be Green Foundation Lecturer.” According to the National Churchill Museum website, the John Findley Green Foundation has brought “lectures designed to promote understanding of economic and social problems of international concern,” to Westminster since 1936, the most famous being Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Sinews of Peace,” also known as “The Iron Curtain Speech.”
The unnamed author of the Stalin article probably had “Sinews of Peace” on his mind when he placed Stalin, a major cause of the Iron Curtain, behind the lectern. On a similar note of sarcasm, he calls Stalin’s speech “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” a play on the title of the 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Directly below the Stalin article is the headline “Fulton Cited by Leak for Its Progress.” The brief column jokes that the city of Fulton has been “selected as the most progressive town of its size in the nation by Leak magazine.” It says that Fulton has been recognized for “installation of a stoplight; the decision of Fulton’s churches to permit motion pictures on Sunday nights providing the show does not begin until 8:30, after all have a chance to go to church; permitting beer to be sold until 11:30 every night except Sundays; and Fulton’s smooth and well-paved street system.”
Most of the space satirizes the faculty members. The headline of one such article declares “Pres. Hall Enlists in Infantry.”
The column reports that Hall “felt that someone had to uphold the glorious tradition of the Infantry, since so many other college men were joining the Navy and Air Forces” and that he “joined the Army to gather firsthand data for a forthcoming book to be entitled ‘The Foot Soldier Talks Back.’”
In reality, Hall could not have been in the military in 1951, because he served as Westminster’s president from 1948 to 1954.
Other articles that lampoon faculty include “‘Pearly’ Gates To Become Owner Of Student Center,” which is about Philosophy and Biblical Studies Professor Dr. Gates purchasing a local bar and turning it into a hangout spot for students, and “Gala All-School Dance for Faculty Rest Home Planned,” which says that proceeds from the dance will support the “maintenance fund for the faculty rest home” and that “a beautiful China commode will be awarded to the ‘Professor I’d Like Most to Strangle’” at the end of the dance.
Faculty members are also mocked in a series of abbreviated pieces called “Your Faculty … Late Flashes.” One of these states that Dr. Sharton will leave his position at Westminster to become a safety director at AAA. Apparently, this man was a notoriously bad driver, as the writer says, “Dr. Sharton is well-known for his series on ‘How to Drive a Car.’”
Similar to the front page of The Columns, the front page of The Pillars (the third page of this newspaper) has an upside-down set of six columns. However, the words “The Pillars” are right-side up. There is also a notice that the editorial staff will “award one swig of Coke to any student who correctly names the authors of each article.”
The pages of The Pillars provide the professors and administrators opportunities to poke fun at students.
For example, in an article called “A Donkey’s Serenade,” an anonymous author creates a fictional university using analogies from Gulliver’s Travels, as he compares professors to Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses from the book, and immature students to “he-asses.”
The asses (students) are bored from having to eat oats as a curriculum requirement and frustrated by being fenced-in, so they have a rally where they kick and yell. Eventually, though, they become responsible Houyhnhnms, and another class of immature asses takes their place.
Sarcastic symbolism is also at work in a “Student of the Week” article, which recognizes a student named “Purejoy Y. Freefoot, VI,” also known as “Purejoy” or “Puree.”
“Puree” graduated from “Pole Cat School No. 2, District 12” in the upper half of his class, but he struggles at Westminster. Although the article directly praises “Puree,” the author’s use of irony heavily criticizes him.
“Puree” is in his sixth year at Westminster and is “the last of a long line of Freefoots” to attend the college. For nearly a dozen semesters, he has had to “endure” “such things as shoes, eight o’clock classes and rushing…”
He intends to major in biology and become a doctor, but he finds little success there. However, “he still returns to the biology building when the professors there are in need of unusual specimens.” The psychology department is also rumored to be interested in “Puree,” the article says.
“Puree” has letters in track, soccer and ping-pong and becomes a member of the “Eyes of Eight,” but he remains independent and is hesitant to declare a major, because all subjects are so interesting.”
The Columns: April 1, 2010
Unlike the previous April Fools’ issues, whose jokes appear to be in good fun, the 2010 April Fools’ issue has underlying political tones, according to Sarah Black (previously Sarah Blackmon), ’10, Editor-in-Chief of The Columns in 2010.
Black said that the April Fools’ edition was meant to address social issues at Westminster and criticize the campus’ increasingly stricter policies in addition to playing an initial prank on the reader.
Black and a team of reporters got to work over spring break, and their fabricated stories came out on Thursday, April 1, despite the standard issue day being Friday.
The top headline of this paper reads “Facebook Banned on Campus.”
According to Black, who wrote the article (as the “Co-Person-in-Charge”), the false report of Facebook being shut down at Westminster was a response to the school’s new alcohol policies. If administrators can take away the freedom of getting into parties without an ID, they can take away the freedom of using Facebook, the sarcastic logic outlines.
Two days before the paper came out, Black and her colleagues started a Facebook group devoted to stopping the ban of Facebook at Westminster. She said that they advertised the group and told people they could learn more about the state of Facebook on campus in the upcoming issue of The Columns.
“We really wanted to get more people involved in the paper, and we thought this issue would do that,” Black said.
Even though the Student Government Association alerted students that the rumor was a hoax, Black said the group got a lot of attention.
But she admitted that students’ belief in the rumor was almost nonexistent by the time the paper was published. If anyone did buy in to it, they should have read the disclaimer on the eighth page: “If you haven’t figured it out by now, this entire issue has been a farce. We hope you enjoyed our version of April Fools’ Day fun and please remember, don’t take anything you read here seriously.”
Halen Rudolph, the layout editor in 2010 said one of the motives to create an April Fools’ issue was to have a little fun. “There [were] only a few weeks left of classes, finals looming around the corner, and there [was] a lot of focus on study, study, study,” he said. “We wanted to bring a smile to the campus and help everyone lighten their moods, if only for a moment.”
Despite Rudolph’s take, there were serious matters surrounding the April 1 issue. The Columns had been struggling to get funding from SGA, which was considering defunding the paper and forcing it to become an online publication, Black said. Additionally, SGA took issue with the paper’s April Fools’ Day content.
“There was a bit of a fuss if I remember correctly,” Rudolph said.
“I vaguely remember being called in front of SGA to ‘justify our actions,’ he continued, adding “I believe one of the representatives said it was due to the fact that they felt it was not a good use of the Columns’ funds since we ‘didn’t do any actual work.’”
Particularly controversial was an article called “You’ll Never Want to Leave the Nest Again,” by Rachel Hyde.
The article reports that Residential and Greek Life had bought five houses in Carver Park, conveniently close to a Taco Bell, and that it will tear the houses down to make room for an apartment complex. The apartments will include hot tubs and will accommodate pets lighter than 30 pounds. According to Hyde, Director of Residential Life Jackie Weber “expects the Blue Jay nest to be high on students’ priority list when it comes to room pick.” Hyde also says that Weber had lost the paperwork for room selection, forcing a “redo room pick.”
According to Black, the paperwork mismatch is a representation of the perceived dysfunction of Residential and Greek Life.
“Housing is always a sensitive issue at Westminster because so many students are required to live on campus,” Black said.
She added that the bit about hot tubs came from the fact that the University of Missouri had acquired hot tubs a few years before. The concept, she said, is both an inside joke referring to the frequent hot tub requests at meetings and a criticism of Mizzou for “being a state school but spending so much money on those sorts of things, when we’re here at a private school.”
But, she said that this was “misconstrued,” suggesting that the SGA took it to be a demand for hot tubs.’
A Lighter Note
“As with a lot of different things, people get into their feelings and felt like they were attacked,” Rudolph said. “We referenced other newspapers doing the same, pointed out that we made fun of ourselves and told everyone that it was all meant to be something fun.”
Throughout the paper, articles do become less political and more light-hearted. Some of the sillier headlines include “Zombie Epidemic Reaching Fulton,” “Geese Double Two-Pronged Effort,” and “Kim Kardashian – Bringing Sexy Back.”