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.”

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.

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.

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.)

It Started Here: Lochry’s Defeat

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. January, 2010. (Photo: Jonathan Woytek)

Lochry’s Defeat started in 1781 when Archibald Lochry raised a militia unit in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. About one hundred men set off down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt (which later became Pittsburgh). A few weeks later, the entire group ended up captured or killed.

Archibald Lochry was a Westmoreland County leader during the American Revolutionary War. The British occupied Detroit. The American colonists in Western PA were at war with the British and their Native American allies. Many of these Native American allies attacked from the Ohio territory west of PA.

(The colonists referred to the British general in Detroit as “Hair Buyer Hamilton” because the British paid for the scalps of American colonists.)

Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of Virginia, promoted George Rogers Clark to the Virginia rank of Brigadier General. In 1781, Clark left Fort Pitt to navigate down the Ohio River into the Ohio territory.

Lochry and his militiamen followed in their own flotilla some time later. Lochry was supposed to meet up with Clark’s expedition downriver. Unfortunately, after a number of issues including supplies, communication, and the threat of desertions among Clark’s men, Lochry missed Clark several times. Lochry never caught up to Clark.

In August 1781, Joseph Brant and George Girty led Native Americans allied with the British. (George Girty was Simon Girty‘s brother.) This group set out looking for Clark.

Brant and Girty instead surprised Lochry, who had stopped on the banks of the Ohio River in present-day Indiana. Brant and Girty ambushed Lochry and killed him. They killed dozens of his men and took the rest prisoner.

The families back in Westmoreland County didn’t learn about this until a significant time later.

The Wikipedia entry for this event also refers to it as the Lochry Massacre. I chose to not use the word “massacre” because indignenous people were involved in the victory. I explained my choice of semantics in this other blog post.

If you want a much more detailed account of Lochry’s Defeat and Clark’s expedition, by all means go read the Wikipedia entry on this. The Wikipedia page includes a photo of the Lochry’s Defeat site in Indiana. I also saw in this photo some military equipment that I believe came from a 20th century war. To be honest, at first glance I mistook this equipment to be an empty boat trailer. (This is IS along the Ohio River banks.)

I wrote today’s blog post for all of the people who, like me, don’t remember learning about this in high school history class. In fact, I never even heard this story from my Westmoreland County family members who first told me about Simon Girty. I learned about Lochry’s Defeat from the historical fiction novel “The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Just to keep this in context with other local history, Lochry’s men from Westmoreland County set off from Fort Pitt in the summer of 1781. Lochry’s Defeat happened in Indiana in August 1781. The Crawford Expedition set off down the Ohio River in May 1782. (William Crawford led this expedition. Most of his militiamen came from Westmoreland and Washington counties.) The British and their Native American allies captured and executed Crawford in Ohio in June 1782. Simon Girty was present at Crawford’s execution. Then, the British and their Native American allies attacked and burned Hannastown in Westmoreland County in July 1782. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783.

According to Wikipedia, Joseph Brant allegedly got into a violent, drunken brawl with Simon Girty over the issue of whether Brant or George Girty deserved the credit for Lochry’s Defeat. Brant was a Mohawk military leader and Girty (who was himself raised by Native Americans) has an infamous reputation in frontier America. At least one Canadian monument refers to Simon Girty as a British Loyalist. Keep this in mind when you read such tales.

What I’ve Been Reading: “The Huntress”

Last summer, Jonathan gave me a copy of “The Huntress” by Kate Quinn for my birthday. World War II novels aren’t really my thing, so I put it in my stack of “to be read” books.

I’ve been sick since the day after Christmas until yesterday, so I read “The Huntress.” It was so good! I could not put it down. This is a historical fiction novel about a British Nazi hunter in the 1950’s mixed with flashbacks from a female Soviet fighter pilot (a member of the Night Witches in World War II) and also the tale of a Boston teenager whose father married a German war refugee with a shadowy past.

Here’s a random scene that pleased me to read: the British Nazi hunter walked into his office and saw his team member, the female Soviet pilot, reading the 1950’s British Regency romance novel “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer.

The Brit asked the Soviet woman, “Why do you read that tosh?

She responded, “I come to library my first month in Manchester – need books to learn about England, practice my reading. The librarian, she says, “Georgette Heyer is England.” Is not much like the England I see, but maybe is the war?

I personally didn’t read “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer, but I DID read “The Spanish Bride” by Georgette Heyer. Now, romantic historical fiction doesn’t have a very good reputation for literary snobs. However, it fills its own role in a nation’s culture. Georgette Heyer researched her historical fiction. She wrote the book “The Spanish Bride” about the adventures of real-life army wife Juana Smith during the Napoleonic Wars, and she based the tale partly on the memoirs of Smith’s husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith. (Sir Harry served as a junior British officer during the Peninsula Wars. He was at the White House when the British burned it down during the War of 1812. He was at the Battle of New Orleans when Andrew Jackson defeated the British. He was at Waterloo. He commanded his own victory in India. He became a governor of British South Africa.)

Now that I think about it, the fictional character in “The Huntress” who read Georgette Heyer novels was a war refugee who spoke no English when she entered into a marriage of convenience with a British man who could keep her from starving to death. Real-life Juana Smith was also a war refugee, and she did the same thing.

I like to think that back in the 1950’s, a British librarian really DID tell war refugees to improve their English and learn about England by reading Georgette Heyer romance novels.

******* This last paragraph contains spoilers: Most of the English Regency romance novels (and also most of the non-English Regency romance novels that are STYLED after English Regency romance novels) that I read include the following story line: a woman marries a man because she HAS to marry him. She needs to have a husband so that she doesn’t get raped, so that she isn’t labeled as promiscuous, so that she can get her papers to emigrate to England. Whatever. The man agrees to the marriage of convenience out of the goodness of his heart because he sees himself as the woman’s protector. Both parties agree that it’s a paper marriage. However, as the story progresses, the couple falls in love with each other. The exact same thing happened in “The Huntress” between the British Nazi hunter and the female Soviet fighter pilot. ******

Growing Up With Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell will celebrate a birthday next week. Perhaps I already gave her age more attention than I would if she were a man. But, I’ve thought about her work as a writer and historian very much lately.

Vowell edited for and appeared on This American Life, wrote several nonfiction books about American history and culture, and acted as the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles series of animated movies.

Years ago, my sister K. gave me a book of Vowell’s essays for Christmas. This was my introduction to Vowell. (Podcasts didn’t exist back then, and I didn’t listen to This American Life on the radio.)

I don’t remember seeing any political essays in our local rural newspaper that included (positive) pop cultural references. I didn’t see any syndicated political columns written by young women, or even women.

Vowell WAS a young woman when I first read her work.

I didn’t agree with every single thing that Vowell wrote. In fact, I disagreed with her a healthy amount. Her one essay about her reverence for Theodore Roosevelt caused me to roll my eyes more than I usually roll them.

I even gave one of her books three out of five stars on Amazon. (I discovered that some Amazon reviewers actively argue with reviews critical of Vowell’s books. Who does that? Who are these people who devote time and energy arguing with negative book reviews? I’m going to give Vowell the benefit of the doubt and assume that she does not recruit her friends and family to do this.)

Vowell wrote her most recent book in 2015. I can’t find anything online that Vowell wrote since 2015 and early 2016. Ever since the 2016 United States presidential election, I sometimes ask myself, “What would Sarah Vowell say about this?”

I have to guess the answer. I don’t have Sarah Vowell around to tell me how to think about things.

Why did Sarah Vowell go silent? Is she working on another book? Did she retire forever on her royalties? Did she get tired?

So, Sarah, wherever you are, I hope that you are healthy in every way. I hope that you are happy. I hope that your cult following makes you proud. I hope that you have a happy birthday.

Remember the End: Greensburg Historical Fiction

Greensburg Station. Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Photo taken November 3, 2019. This is now the Greensburg Amtrak station. This was originally a Pennsylvania Railroad station. The station opened in 1912. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I have family who lived in the Greensburg-ish, Pennsylvania, area in the early 1900’s. A bunch of them died young and / or poor, so I can’t tell you much about them. However, because of them, I got stuck on Western PA history.

I read this historical fiction novel titled “Remember the End” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. Turnbull was a New York Times bestselling writer from New Alexandria, PA. How sad that Turnbull didn’t have a snappier pen name! Like Mark Twain. T’would be easier for me to blog about her.

Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). (My sister, a double IUP grad, told me that IUP used to have a Turnbull Hall. This got knocked down and replaced with a parking lot.)

Anyway, Turnbull wrote Remember the End. This novel began in the late 1800’s in Scotland, then moved to the Greensburg area, then ended in Greensburg around 1917.

(The book didn’t actually list dates. I only knew that the book ended around 1917 because at the end of the story, several of the characters talked about fighting in the War (World War I). The War started in 1914. The United States entered the War in 1917. As an FYI, my own great-grandfather did actually fight in this War. He got captured by the Germans and lost the use of his arm in this same War. He returned to his farm in Westmoreland County, and he named one of his mules after the German kaiser.)

At the very beginning of Remember the End, (the very poor) Alex McTay left his home in Scotland. He emigrated to Pennsylvania. He fell in love with Maggie, a (poor, but not quite as poor) Westmoreland County horse trader’s daughter.

Alex married Maggie. He opened coal mines. He became a millionaire before his 35th birthday. He built a fancy home for Maggie in Greensburg.

I think that Turnbull based the protagonist on a hybrid of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. At one point in the story, McTay referred to Andrew Carnegie as his hero or his role model or something.

Unlike Andrew Carnegie, McTay didn’t become a philanthropist.

McTay deliberately ruined his business rival’s life after the rival humiliated him at a fancy Greensburg party.

Remember the End haunts me because my family lived in Western PA during this same time frame. Fictional Alex McTay’s fortune could very well have been built upon my family’s backs.

I posted above a photo of Greensburg’s train station. The Pennsylvania Railroad built this station in 1912. So, if Alex McTay existed in real life, he and his family could have travelled through this station. Did Turnbull visualize Alex McTay in this station?

Turnbull is now buried in New Alexandria. Remember the End is now out of print. I purchased my copy (used) from Amazon this month.

My Trip to Carnegie Hall

I went to a lecture at a Carnegie Hall last night.

No, I didn’t travel to THE Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.

Jonathan drove me to the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. I heard an author speak about her historical fiction novel about the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and his (fictional) Irish maid, Clara Kelley.

I learned that the staff at this library refer to the place as the “Carnegie Carnegie.”

Andrew Carnegie gifted the community of Carnegie with this library since they named their hometown after him. Most of the other libraries named after Andrew Carnegie in Greater Pittsburgh required community contributions to build. Not so with the Carnegie Carnegie. Andrew Carnegie funded this himself.

I came there for the talk by author Marie Benedict about her novel Carnegie’s Maid.

Benedict created the character of Clara Kelley based in part on her own Irish immigrant ancestors who worked as maids during the Industrial Revolution. She cast Clara Kelley as the fictional lady’s maid for Andrew Carnegie’s strong-willed Scottish mother, Margaret Carnegie. The book took place during the years 1863 – 1868. At this point in time, Andrew Carnegie was rich enough to pay for a lady’s maid for his mother. He was rich enough to pay an immigrant to take his place as a Civil War soldier. He was not yet one of the richest men in American history.

I enjoyed reading Carnegie’s Maid. I enjoyed the book talk even more. This was one of the best book talks / author visits that I ever attended. The author brought a slide show with photos of Andrew Carnegie, Margaret Carnegie, and historically significant buildings that figured into the novel. She taught us about her research process.

Here’s something that I noted when I read the book, but that Benedict came out and said: Pittsburgh’s dirty air occupied a role as “its own character” in Carnegie’s Maid. Benedict’s narrator mentioned the dirty air often. Now, the book took place in the 1860’s. However, my own husband’s late Babcia (the Polish word for grandma) worked in downtown Pittsburgh in the late 1940’s / early 1950’s. In that time, the woman wore white gloves as they travelled and worked. Babcia brought TWO pairs of gloves with her each day. She had to change her gloves partway through each day because the original pair became dark with soot. She did this every work day. And she worked in an OFFICE.

Pittsburgh’s air was DIRTY for a century or more. In fact, as I mentioned last week, I wonder often about the role that Pittsburgh’s air played in my own mother’s death from lung cancer.

I was born before Pittsburgh’s steel industry imploded and took a lot of American dreams with it. I visited my grandparents in Pittsburgh (Carrick) during my early years. I remember how the city smelled of sulfur from the mills on a late December night.

Pittsburgh was built on the backs of Americans and future Americans who ingested this filthy air.

Now I work in downtown Pittsburgh. My downtown Pittsburgh is much cleaner than Babcia’s downtown Pittsburgh. I hear the hype about Pittsburgh’s exciting renaissance. I visit some of the trendy, gentrifying “hipster” neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. And I remind myself that people suffered – still suffer – from Pittsburgh’s gritty past.

I brought much of myself and my past into this book as I read it.

I want to attend another talk by this author after she releases her next book.