Check Out These Fun April Fools’ Day Tricks from the 1800’s

I bought a copy of The American Girls Handy Book, by Lina Beard and Adelia Beard, copyright 1887.

The Victorian-era Beard sisters were born in the 1850’s in Kentucky. Their family moved to New York City in the 1860’s. The sisters wrote The American Girls Handy Book several years after their brother wrote a similar book for boys.

(FYI all of you English teachers and grammar snobs: I confirmed that this book possesses no possessive or plural apostrophe in the word Girls. So there.)

Chapter 1 is titled The First of April. The sisters began with these April Fools’ Day bits of lore:

1.) England: “Early Christians” referred to the day as “Festum Fatuorum” or “Fools’ Holiday.”

2.) France: The Beard sisters claimed that mackerel are easily caught on the French coast and that the fish have a reputation for low intelligence. Thus derives the term “Silly Mackerel” or “Poisson d’Avril” (French for “April Fish.”

3.) Scotland: The word “gowk” referred to a “cuckoo,” a bird that does not have the knowledge to build its own nest.

4.) India: The Huli Festival, held on the last day of March, encouraged celebrants to prank their friends.

One of the Beard sisters (the book doesn’t specify which one) then explained that one year she invited friends over to her parents’ house for a candy-pull to celebrate her April 1st birthday.

Then it hit her. What if everyone thought that this was a joke? What if nobody came? She worried. Then – all of her guests showed up at the same time. They arrived as a group so that nobody would look individually foolish if this were a prank.

5 Fun Pranks for Your April Fools’ Party

So, if you do hold your own “First of April” Party, the Beard sisters offer this advice: first assure invitees that your party is not a hoax. Then, they suggested these fun games:

1.) Who’s the Fool Now?

  • Position a large mirror in front of a doorway or window.
  • Write “We are April Fools” in soap on the top of the mirror.
  • Drape curtains over the mirror so that you completely cover the mirror.
  • Invite your guests to gather in front of the curtain-draped mirror to see a special show.
  • Draw aside the curtains so that your guests can see their own faces reflected in the mirror, under the words “We are April Fools.”

2.) The Chair

  • Write “APRIL FOOL” backwards in white chalk on a chair.
  • Convince “some boy” who is wearing a “coat” with a “dark woolly surface” to sit on said chair.
  • The boy will then walk around with “APRIL FOOL” written on his back.
  • Ha, ha! Isn’t that funny? The Beard sisters convinced me that this boy will “join in the general laughter his appearance creates” without knowing that everybody else is laughing AT him, not WITH him!
  • (Fun fact for you Stephen King fans: “APRIL FOOL” written backwards is “REDRUM.”)

3.) The Premises Liability Claim / Future Lawsuit

  • Replace the top of a “packing-box” with wrapping paper.
  • Throw a blanket or something over the thing.
  • Pile pillows on top of the blanket.
  • Make your creation look “exceedingly comfortable and inviting.”
  • Wait for someone to sit on your fake seat.
  • Watch said guest fall through the wrapping paper.
  • The American Girls Handy Book said that you should make sure that this fake couch should be “not more than twelve inches high, so that the fall will be only funny, not dangerous.”

4.) Noah’s Ark Peep-show (That’s the actual name of this prank!)

  • Procure a box shaped like a rectangle. Each end should be open but covered with a curtain.
  • Put a sliding divider in the middle of the box.
  • Announce that viewers to each side of the box will view a different animal from Noah’s ark.
  • Call up a boy to view one side of the box and call up a girl to view the other side of the box.
  • As soon as the boy and the girl peak through the curtains on their respective side of the box, slide open the middle divider.
  • The girl will view the boy and the boy will view the girl.

5.) The Cookie Table

  • Cover small blocks of wood with cake batter and bake them so that they look like cakes.
  • Cover small radishes with icing.
  • Coat button-moulds (what’s a button-mould?) with chocolate.
  • Fill a pill-box with flour. Paste tissue-paper on top. Cover the thing with icing. Offer the thing to party-goers as cake. Watch the flour fly when someone bites into the thing.
  • Mix the “trick” desserts with real desserts. What fun!

The Beard sisters ended the chapter by reminding us to “keep the jokes entirely harmless.”

After all,” they concluded, “the spirit of mischief must be kept within bounds even on All-Fools-Day.”

Pay-What-You-Can: Updated for March 2020

Update: I published this blog post almost a full year ago, on March 30, 2019.

As you know, things are kinda different now.

Knead Community Café still feeds the New Kensington community on a “Pay-What-You-Can / Pay-It-Forward” model. Since Governor Wolf closed every dining room in the state, customers now pick up the food or receive it delivered from café volunteers.

I miss sitting in the cafe’s sunny dining room and I miss admiring the communal wooden table that occupies the dining room’s center. This table reminds me of the time back in the 1990’s that my Uncle S. and my Aunt M. rented a huge (to me, at least) lodge in the middle of the woods in Central Pennsylvania for my cousin R.’s wedding. We slept in the lodge that night. In the morning, we all had breakfast together at a large table in a kitchen nook.

Anyway, restaurants and grocery stores recently donated food to Knead. Knead cooked the food into “grab and go” meals that they handed out at their door and also recruited volunteers to deliver. They did not request “Pay-What-You-Can / Pay-It-Forward” donations for these “grab and go” meals. They still had to pay their employees to prepare these meals.

So, I updated this blog post in the hopes that readers consider supporting Knead financially.

Knead Community Cafe’s Wooden Table

Here’s what I posted almost a full year ago, on March 30, 2019:

In January, Planet Money released Episode 889: The Pay-What-You-Want Experiment. In this episode, host Sarah Gonzalez interviewed Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich. Shaich opened a small chain of “pay-what-you-want” eating establishments operating under the name of “Panera Cares” in 2010. Unfortunately, all of the “Panera Cares” locations eventually closed.

However, New Kensington, Pennsylvania has its own independent, non-profit “pay-what-you-can” restaurant: Knead Community Cafe.

I ate breakfast this morning at Knead. I breakfasted there several other Saturday mornings in the past year. Knead opened in February 2017. I took all of the photos in this blog post in April 2018.

To clarify, New Kensington’s Knead Community Cafe is NOT affiliated in any way with Panera Bread. I mentioned the Planet Money episode merely to illustrate that Planet Money did a story on an innovative type of establishment similar to one that exists in my own town.

The above linked Planet Money episode referred to the concept as “pay-what-you-want.” The website for Knead referred to the concept as “pay-what-you-can / pay-it-forward.” I based my below explanation on Knead’s website. If you want specific information on how the restaurant works, its hours of operation, or its menu, please visit its website and / or its Facebook page.

The booth inside of Knead’s front door explained “pay-what-you-can” as it applied to Knead:

Before each trip to Knead, I first checked Knead’s Facebook page to review that day’s menu. Note that the menu changes each day. On my first trip, I had a choice of three breakfast options.

We ordered our food and our choice of juice at a counter. Cafe volunteers brought our food to our assigned table. We helped ourselves to coffee, tea, and iced tea at the cafe’s beverage bar.

In addition to Knead’s indoor seating, Knead has an outdoor courtyard. I never sat in the courtyard, but I took a few photos of it. People who sit in the courtyard can enjoy this old city’s “ghost signs.” (Ghost signs are hand-painted advertisements on the sides of old buildings. Many ghost signs advertise now-defunct products or businesses.)

In fact, if you chose to eat at Knead, you might work off your meal with a short photo walk around downtown New Kensington. You will be able to photograph several ghost signs.


Finally, parking options are very important to me when I visit a place. I am satisfied with Knead’s parking options. Visitors can park along the street for free. Visitors can also park in a large, free public parking lot directly across the street from Knead’s front entrance.

My husband and I live within walking distance from Knead. When we visit, we often run into people that we know. However, we also chat at Knead with people that we never previously met. Knead provides an excellent place for the community to partake of a meal as fellow human beings.

Have you ever visited a “pay-what-you-want / pay-what-you-can / pay-it-forward” restaurant? Tell me about your experience.

Happy Friday the 13th: Spooky Photos for You

New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jonathan Woytek and Jenny Gaffron Woytek (The photo was an exercise for a photography lesson.)
Pet Cemetery, Hartwood Acres, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Tintern Abbey, Wales, United Kingdom. Photo: Jonathan Woytek
Round Island, off of Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Ohio Turnpike. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Ohio Turnpike. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woyek

Why I’m “Basic” Enough to Blog about “Little Women” on International Women’s Day

Last month, I sat in a movie theater and watched the newest adaptation of Little Women by myself. I already knew that that a feminist media website pretty much cast shade on Little Women as a basic white woman’s story. I didn’t care.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in the late 1860’s to great commercial success. The book told the story of the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) who grew up during the American Civil War. The sisters dealt with contagious disease, financial stress, peer pressure, misogyny, and expectations from society and family.

Louisa May Alcott herself grew up in a family of four daughters that struggled constantly. (Alcott’s father founded a failed commune!)

My own parents had four daughters until I went to college. Then, they had five daughters. I found common ground with Little Women: a house full of sisters squabbling and then making up. Financial questions. Peer pressure. Misogyny. Expectations from society. Expectations from family.

There were some differences. The March sisters’ aunt pressured the girls to make themselves as marketable as possible to potential future husbands. I and my sisters grew up in an area traumatized by the collapse of the steel industry. We were trained to make ourselves as marketable as possible to potential future employers.

I bought this children’s “comic book / graphic novel” edition of Little Women off of eBay. It included a 45 RPM recording of the book. My sisters and I owned a copy of this exact book and record. (Ours might even still be at my dad’s house somewhere.) We played this record over and over for years. Poor Mom!

When I read the actual Little Women novel in junior high, I learned that this pictured comic book and record only covered the first part of the novel. (Spoiler alert: Beth recovered from her illness in Part 1 of the story. She died in Part 2 of the story. So, I made it to junior high thinking that Beth lived. Surprise!)

Little Women might not be the story for you. That’s fine. I’m just happy that my husband is going to acquire a record player so that I can listen to my Little Women record.

Patient Zero

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA. February, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh just ended a show themed on outer space. I laid on the floor underneath an exhibit there and took the above photo. This exhibit represented one of the ringed planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune.

I just learned by reading the website for History (formerly The History Channel) that allegedly at one time, scholars from the University of Paris claimed that on March 20, 1345, the planets of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars lined up in a specific way to create the Black Death (Bubonic Plague).

My sister O. celebrates her birthday on March 20. So, now I can tease her about this.

My other sister, K., got me attached to an NPR podcast called Radiolab. Radiolab used to focus on science and technology. I recommend the episode from November 14, 2011, titled Patient Zero. The episode began with the story of Typhoid Mary, and then explored the identity of Patient Zero from the AIDS epidemic.

(The term “Patient Zero” referred to the index case or initial patient in an infectious disease outbreak.)

If you want some humor when you listen to podcasts about infectious diseases, check out Episode #105 of the true crime comedy podcast, My Favorite Murder. The second half of this explores Typhoid Mary.

The Lead-Lined Coffin

Byers Mauseoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA
Byers Mausoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I took a guided tour of Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, in 2018. This tour included the Byers Mausoleum. The industrialist Eben Byers now rests here, inside of a lead-lined coffin.

Sidling Hill Road Cut, Maryland

Sidling Hill Road Cut, As Seen From Pedestrian Bridge. Southern Maryland. Sidling Hill Also Sits in Southern Pennsylvania. Allegheny Mountains & Appalachian Mountains. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Although this section of Route 40 & I68 belongs to Maryland, we have used this highway to travel from Western Pennsylvania to Central Pennsylvania as an alternative to the PA Turnpike. February 15, 2020. Fun fact: Route 40 was built in the early 1800’s as the National Road.

Let’s Have a Kissing Party!

Hershey, Pennsylvania. February, 2012. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

In the historical fiction novel The Day Must Dawn by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, a colonial family held a kissing party.

The novel explained that the fictional Murray family living in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1778 could not attend their neighbors’ party. The neighbors were Lutherans and their party included dancing. The Murrays were Presbyterians and they did not attend events that included dancing. So, the Murrays held their own party: they held a kissing party.

Mr. Murray once fiddled, but that he lost his fiddle when the family crossed the Allegheny Mountains from Philadelphia. So, he borrowed a fiddle for use at the kissing party.

The party-goers formed a circle. Each young man took a turn standing in the middle of the circle. Mr. Murray fiddled and the party-goers sang King William Was. At the end of each verse, the young man in the middle of the circle chose a young woman and kissed her. The game continued until each young woman at the party had been kissed. The party-goers then played similar kissing games with the songs Lily in the Garden and Sister Phoebe.

The party-goers also played a game called Hurly-Burly. Judging by the way that the novel described this game, I am under the impression that it is vey much like the modern day party game Charades.

Since the party hosts had recently come into the possession of a rare and cherished small mirror, the party-goers took turns looking at their own faces in said mirror. Finally, they played the following fortune-telling game:

The young men formed a circle. Each young woman took a turn standing in the middle of this circle. The remaining young woman stood away from the circle. The party-goes darkened the room. The young woman in the middle of the circle held the room’s only lit candle and also the mirror. The party-goers blindfolded this young woman. The young men in the circle rotated the circle until the blindfolded young woman told them to stop. Someone removed the blindfold. After a short wait, the young woman opened her eyes. The young woman announced the first male face that she saw in the mirror. Per folklore, this would be the face of her future husband.

How fun!

(Nowadays, folks swipe right.)

Redux: Punxsutawny Phil Tribute

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Circa early 1990’s. (Photo: Shirley Gaffron)

Groundhog Day happens this weekend.

My sister blogged about our family’s trips to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (Punxsy) and about her own meeting with Punxsutawny Phil.

Here you go: Happy Groundhog Day! My Brush With The Prognosticator of Prognosticators (Updated)