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April2007
HOME Fascinating Rhythm Let Your Fingers Do the Walking Take a Look, It's in a Book Thomas Jefferson Was a Poet, and We Didn't Even Know It Da Plane! Da Plane! Everybody Plays the Fool...Sometime on April 1 Before It Was A Movie . . . It Was A Media Sensation
Everybody Plays the Fool . . . Sometime On April 1

"The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year." So said Mark Twain about the most lighthearted of holidays. What is the origin of April Fools’ Day?

"A Fool's Cap and a Plate of Ice Cream." Pen and ink wash drawing from Harper's Bazaar, 
              April 4, 1896, by Peter Newell, artist.  

This holiday dedicated to tomfoolery can be traced to a very important event. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII replaced the Julian calendar created by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. with what is now called the Gregorian calendar. Until this change occurred, New Year’s Day was celebrated on April 1, around the time of the vernal equinox, when the hours of day and night are nearly equal.

You can see a beautiful manuscript edition of an Armenian translation of the Gregorian calendar from 1584, printed by the Vatican press. The front page shows, beneath the title, the coat of arms of Gregory XIII's family, the Boncompagni. The image comes from the online exhibition Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture, one of many Exhibitions.

What is uncertain is how the calendar change became the basis for the holiday. In the 16th century, because news traveled so slowly, many people did not hear that a new calendar had been established. It is believed that those in the know played tricks and mocked those who were still celebrating New Year’s on April 1.

In France today, the holiday is called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish, because schoolchildren tape a paper fish to a classmate’s back, and when he or she discovers it, they yell “April Fish!” In Scotland, the butt of an April Fools’ joke is called a gowk, or cuckoo. The British brought the custom with them to the States.

A short film in the Library’s collections showing a young boy playing a trick on his grandfather can be seen at the April Fools' Day “Jump Back in Time” page in America's Library, a Web site for kids and families. Another film, “Little Mischief,” shows a girl teasing her father. More than 60 motion pictures, including these two, are in the Variety Stage collection.

And more than 300 motion pictures by the inventor of the kinetophone, which loosely synchronized sound and film, can be viewed at Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.

Most of these films are from the Paper Print Film Collection at the Library of Congress. Because the copyright law did not cover motion pictures until 1912, early film producers seeking protection for their work sent paper contact prints of their motion pictures to the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. Some motion picture companies, such as the Edison Company, submitted entire motion pictures--frame by frame--as paper prints. The Edison films available here were reconstructed from the paper prints, which have long outlasted the films themselves. For more information on film preservation, visit the Moving Image Collections at the Library of Congress Web page.


A. "A Fool's Cap and a Plate of Ice Cream." Pen and ink wash drawing from Harper's Bazaar, April 4, 1896, by Peter Newell, artist. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction information: This item may be restricted. Contact the Prints and Photographs Reading Room at (202) 707-6394 for information on reproduction rights available in the Restrictions Statement. Call Number: CAI - Newell, no. 10 (A size) [P&P]