April Fools’ pranks are an old tradition in American and European cultures, but no one knows the exact origins of the holiday.
One of the most popular theories has to do with changing calendars in the 1500s. According to this explanation, the new year had been traditionally celebrated at the start of spring. When France changed to the Roman calendar, the new year fell in January. Those who were slow to adopt the change, often people who lived in the countryside, became known as "April fools," according to the story.
Other historians have linked the trickster tradition to ancient European spring festivals where people dressed in costume to fool each other. As the holiday spread throughout Europe and to the Americas, pranks became a rite of spring. As the years passed, the pranks got bigger and bigger. Here are a just a few of the greatest April Fools hoaxes in history.
The earliest April Fools’ Day hoax on record was in 1698, says Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. “People in London were told to go see the annual ceremony of the washing of the lions at the Tower of London,” he says. “They showed up at the Tower of London, but”—alas—“there was no annual lion-washing ceremony.”
The street prank worked so well that people kept pulling it year after year, targeting mostly out-of-towners.
“By the mid-19th century, pranksters had printed up fake tickets,” he says. “Hundreds or thousands of people would show up,” only to realize they’d been tricked.
In 1905, the Berliner Tageblatt, a German newspaper, reported that thieves had tunneled underneath the U.S. Federal Treasury and stolen all of its silver and gold. The story was quickly picked up by papers throughout Europe and the United States. It was huge news—or would have been, if true.
“It was only in the mid-20th century that April Fools’ Day shifted to be a media event,” says Boese. This shift, which led to the Swiss spaghetti harvest, had its roots in early 20th-century German newspaper pranks like the treasury heist.
On April 1, 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation told viewers that there had been an “exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop” in Switzerland that year, due in part to “the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.”
The BBC showed footage of spaghetti harvesters diligently picking noodles from trees. Some viewers were upset—but some called to ask where they could find a spaghetti bush.
Running for president
"I never did anything wrong, and I won't do it again," said former President Richard Nixon, announcing that he would run for president in 1992. But the man speaking wasn’t Nixon, and the news segment that aired the announcement wasn’t real.
National Public Radio’s piece on Nixon’s 1992 presidential run is one of its most famous April Fools’ Day pranks. Not only did people believe it, they were outraged. “A lot of people’s worst dream was Nixon running again,” says Boese. “The idea that he would run again was absurd, but it played on their fears so much that thousands of people believed it.”
Buying the Liberty Bell
In 1996, Taco Bell ran a newspaper ad announcing that it had purchased the Liberty Bell. The ad was “a risky thing to do because it annoyed a lot of people,” says Boese, but it proved to other companies that “you get a huge bang for your buck if you pull off a stunt that everybody talks about.”
The ad represented a shift in the way that companies looked at April Fools’ Day. Before that, it was a light-hearted jest and bit of fun, but starting with the Taco Liberty Bell, and continuing into today, companies began to see it as a way to promote their brand and make money.
Playing a game
In 2014, Google joined the ranks of corporations playing tricks on the public. On April 1, published a Pokémon game in which players could use Google maps to look for and catch Pikachus and Bulbasaurs, who would pop up on the map screen for gamers to grab. The prize for the biggest collection? A job a Google as “Pokémon Master.” April Fools, Pokémon trainers.
It was a pretty funny joke, but it was also inspirational. Software engineers at Niantic Labs took the prank and turned it into a phenomenon: Pokémon Go.
Covering up animals
National Geographic even got in on the fun in 2016. The media company surprised the world when it announced via Twitter that National Geographic would no longer be publishing photographs of naked animals: "The media group says that it will no longer degrade animals by showing photos of them without clothes."
Readers who clicked through to the story were greeted with "April Fools" and a gallery of adorably dressed puppies and kittens.
The Museum of Hoaxes (Not)
Boese has written about hoaxes on his website since 1997. According to the site, the Museum of Hoaxes is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in San Diego.
People frequently email him to ask how they can find his museum. Because he’s an honest man, he tells the truth: It’s a hoax.
“It all started because I was calling the [website] the ‘Museum of Hoaxes,’ and at some point one of my readers emailed me some pictures he’d created with photoshop,” says Boese. He decided to post these fake museum photos on his site, explaining that “it seemed appropriate since the whole subject is hoaxes.”
When he posted the photos, Boese made sure to add some helpful directions to the museum: “Keep driving until you see a giant floating jackalope off to your right … If you reach LA, you've gone too far.”
This story was originally published in April 2015. It has been updated.