Rogue Bras to Bogarts: April Fool’s Day in the Media

As I sat down to write a blog post for April 1st, I considered composing something creative, bizarre and downright untrue – as is tradition on April Fool’s Day. Perhaps I should explain that William Shakespeare will now appear in Gale’s Biography in Context as Wally Shakespoon, because it was the great bard’s given name before his publisher recommended he assumed a pen name with more grandeur and authority…Or maybe that State Papers Online will soon include Queen Victoria’s architectural plans to install a hot-tub in Buckingham Palace? My fascination for how and where this humorous tradition originated got the better of me, however, and I decided instead to root around the (real!) Gale resources to find out more about the origins and history of what many of us now call ‘April Fool’s Day’. It quickly became apparent that the answer is somewhat elusive. Not only are there numerous possibilities to negotiate, some explanations were pranks in themselves.

One of my favourite examples of this double foolery is outlined in an article by Stephen Kurczy found in Gale’s Popular Culture Collection, available on the InfoTrac platform, entitled ‘April Fools’ Day history? Be wary of those who say they know’[1]. In short, a university academic, Joseph Boskin, was pushed so hard by a reporter to explain the origins of April Fool’s Day (despite initially protesting his ignorance) that he eventually ‘relented, spinning a yarn that…[it] originated in Istanbul in the court of Constantine when “the jesters decided to unionize.” The king was so amused that he…[gave] up the throne to a jester for the day…who declared it a day of absurdities.’[2] The story was printed. It was only weeks later that it was revealed to be a complete hoax, and both university and newspaper were livid at having fallen for such mockery.

Kurczy’s article also mentions an alternative theory; ‘Europe’s switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in the 1500s, which changed New Year’s Day from late March to Jan. 1, created an easy opportunity to play a prank on the forgetful’[3]. Though it may be as false as Boskin’s tale, this explanation is regularly cited and grounded in a known truth – New Year’s Day was moved when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar in 1582. This initially applied to Catholic European countries, and later spread to others, so may also account for the existence of April Fool’s traditions across the continent. Traditionalists who forgot or refused to move their celebrations were mocked for their naivety, in ways akin to modern April Fool’s pranks. In France, the tradition of ‘Poisson D’Avril’ developed, where the unfortunate ‘Fool’ is an ‘April Fish’. Children today still stick decorated paper fish on the back of unsuspecting classmates[4]. (Though this may have originated from the ease of catching newly-spawned fish in the spring – I did say explanations were numerous!)

My wander through Gale’s resources also showed that April Fool’s Day is not only recognised in Europe. I particularly enjoyed the description in Fine Arts and Music Collection of a prank organised by a healthcare company in partnership with an Indian radio station.

‘Radio Mirchi…[built] hype around the contest…Winning listeners were to be rewarded with an iPad, but instead of giving away iPads, the station pranked them by giving out Chingles eye-pads’[5]

It seems, therefore, that April Fool’s Day is now being used commercially – as an advertising and marketing ploy. Indeed, in 2015 AdWeek wrote;

‘Once a fun excuse to pull pranks on your friends, April Fools’ Day has turned into a veritable brand bonanza. This past Wednesday saw an endless stream of fake product launches…[and] Netflix…releas[ed] a series of anti-binge-watching posters encouraging TV addicts to take a break from marathoning House of Cards to “Eat Real Food”…and maybe even “Go to Work.”’[6]

Some companies have become particularly known for their participation in the tradition. Personally I got a good giggle out of Google’s 2013 contribution, ‘Google Nose (Beta)’, which let users smell their search results. They weren’t the first with this idea, however – ‘In 1965, the BBC interviewed the inventor of “smellovision,” which purportedly allowed viewers to smell whatever was on TV’. It is common for the media – and papers such as Daily Mail and The Times in particular – to participate in the April Fool’s tradition. Keen to see how creative newspapers have been, I delved into Gale’s newspaper archives and was not disappointed.
One of my favourites is The Independent’s report in 1988 on the discovery of a new mammal, fantastically named with a combination of rusticity and fantasy, the ‘Cumbrian Bogart’…

Afools-Photo of Bogart
Click here to see this source in The Independent Digital Archive 1986-2012

Afools-Naturalists Foxed by Bogart

Unsurprisingly, The Times and the Daily Mail put in a strong performance; interviewing an athlete from an entirely fictitious island about a non-existent bronze medal, suggesting a Japanese marathon runner is still running weeks later due to believing the London marathon was 26 days, and warning women to check their bras for electrical interference by dangling them over a TV set!

Afools-Do not adjust your set
Click here to see this source in the Daily Mail Historical Archive.
Afools-Kimos yen for the open road
Click here to see this source in the Daily Mail Historical Archive.
Afools-bronze bathes idyllic island in golden glow
Click here to see this source in The Times Digital Archive.

These stories can tell us a lot about the media industry as a whole, newspapers as a medium, and the relationship between newspapers and their readership. In a direct and simplistic way, they drive home an important question: can we or should we trust what we read? Does reliance on a newspaper leave us vulnerable to lies, or merely misrepresentation? And is this a serious issue – with real consequences? For example, if one was to read the electrical bra story through pessimistic glasses, the fact that it encouraged a physical (albeit ridiculous) response from readers illustrates how a newspaper can wield power, indoctrinate and precipitate action – based entirely on lies.

Alternatively, from a more optimistic viewpoint, the existence of April Fool’s stories can indicate a positive relationship of familiarity between news establishments and their readership, in which newspapers can joke and bond with their readers over shared humour. In relation, it is interesting to note that April Fool’s stories can address, and even mock, serious social and political issues. The story above from The Times, suggesting a fictitious island nation was planning on flouting the boycott of the Russian Olympics, was written in 1980, in the midst of the ‘Second’ Cold War when relations with Russia were tense; referring to the issue whilst knee-deep in lies could have been extremely dangerous. The fact that the newspaper used the April Fool’s tradition in this way could indicate a paper with a ‘personality’ – and that they were ‘on the same page’, so to speak, as their readers, and thus permitted to safely push boundaries. Plus, stories steeped in satire can be powerful indications of the existence of free speech in their society of origin.

Consequently, as well as making us laugh many years after they were written for the amusement of contemporary readers, the insight these April Fool’s articles can provide into the society in which they were written – and their ability to drill down into the relationship between newspapers and their readership – makes them extremely valuable research materials, showing how revealing it can be to study aspects of newspaper archives which are sometimes undervalued or overlooked.

*If you’re having trouble accessing these sources in our archives, we suggest trying Internet Explorer rather than Chrome.

[1] Stephen Kurczy, “April Fools’ Day history? Be wary of those who say they know.” Christian Science Monitor 1 Apr. 2010. POPULAR CULTURE COLLECTION
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “These fish can fly.” Screen 3 Nov. 2011. POPULAR CULTURE COLLECTION;  Ian Yarett, ‘Who Were the First April Fools?’ Newsweek 5 Apr. 2010: 60. FINE ARTS AND MUSIC COLLECTION
[5] ‘Chingles pranks Radio Mirchi listeners on April Fools’ Day.’ Radio & Music 4 Apr. 2015. FINE ARTS AND MUSIC COLLECTION
[6] ‘Brands go all out for April Fools’ … again.’ Adweek 6 Apr. 2015: 7. FINE ARTS AND MUSIC COLLECTION
[7] Stephen Kurczy, “April Fools’ Day history? Be wary of those who say they know.” Christian Science Monitor 1 Apr. 2010. POPULAR CULTURE COLLECTION


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About the Author

I’m currently a Marketing Executive in the Gale International Strategic Marketing team. I love the combination of creativity, strategic thinking and project management required in this busy role. Having studied History and English at Durham, it’s a great pleasure to work for a company producing historical archives and literary materials – meandering through Gale’s abundant resources never really feels like work! And to pad out this depiction of me, I can frequently be found running through the Hampshire countryside, and have a strong partiality for coffee cake.