Not quite 150 years ago, the New York Times presented a history of April Fools' Day, with a definite air of "we're above all that here in America."
APRIL FOOLS’ DAY
Origin of the Custom of making April Fools – The Day in Europe and Here
Like many other customs, that of sending people on silly and fruitless errands on the first day of April, or “April Fools' Day” as it is commonly called, is lost in the mists of antiquity, a tolerably certain indication that the custom is not one of religious origin or having any connection therewith, as some have supposed.
The custom exists, however, to a greater or less extent in all the countries of Europe, and something like it may be found in the East Indies at the time of the Huhferst. One of the explanations of the origin of the custom is, that it is intended to commemorate that incident of Biblical history in which Jesus was sent from Pilate to Herod, and back again from Herod to Pilate. At any rate, the phrase "Bending a man from Pilate to Herod," to signify the sending of a person about unnecessarily, is common enough in Germany and portions of Northern Europe.
Others suppose the custom is derived, like many others, from the Romans, and the probability is that the first day of April being considered as the commencement of the Spring, and the termination of the long and dreary Winter, that the day gradually came to be regarded as one of general rejoicing and festivity, and that the tricks then played off by the participants in the feasts on each other were repeated from year to year, under the idea that "a good joke never grows old."
However this may be, the custom of sending people on fruitless errands on the first day of April continues in full force over the greater portion of Europe. It is difficult for a person to walk through the streets of London or Paris on this day without his attention being called to something which does not exist, and, hearing the cry from the London street boy of “April fool.” or from the Paris gamin of poisson d' Avril, (April fish,) our Parisian friends being of the opinion, probably, that a fish is the silliest animal that exists. At the present moment the good people of Paris are engaged in sterner work than making "April fish,” and no doubt they think their rulers have made April fools of them sufficiently, so that it is not likely the cry of poisson d' Avril will have been heard to any great extent in Paris yesterday.
Throughout Great Britain old customs are fondly cherished and there “April fools" are, on this day, as common as blackberries. Some grave and dignified gentlemen walking through Bond and Regent streets, suddenly becomes aware of a small parcel, or lady’s glove, or a laced pocket-handkerchief, dancing like the Thanes "air-drawn dagger” before his eyes. Astounded at the phenomena, he puts out his hand to seize it, grasps the empty air, sees the article vanish and hears from the windows above the merry cry of “April fool;" or he finds a neatly-tied parcel lying on the pavement of some little frequented thoroughfare, and, on examining it finds it to contain a fine specimen of the brick-bat, on which, perhaps, is neatly labeled the words "April fool."
If, instead of being a dignified gentleman, our supposed friend is an apprentice boy, he will most certainly be dispatched by his fellow-workmen for “a pint of pigeon's milk," or a quart of "strap oil," or he will be invited to look at a striking portrait of “the biggest fool in London” and will be somewhat astonished to find nothing more than his own reflection in a looking-glass. All these little jokes are taken in good part, however, as a general thing, and no one is the worse for them.
In this country the custom appears never to have taken root. So far as New-York is concerned we may walk from the Battery to Harlem, and never hear the cry of "April fool." In the country it is still less thought of, and there are not a few places in the rural districts where the custom has never even been heard of. Indeed, as a general thing, our people are not fond of practical jokes, and this may perhaps account for the fact of their almost ignoring April Fool’s Day. Besides, we are a practical people, and cannot find time for such cheap and trivial amusements as delight our Old World brethren.
Perhaps it might be better for some of us it we could. We are content, however, to regard the first of April simply as the commencement of Spring, when it is not ushered in by a small snow-storm as it was yesterday, to feel grateful that the Winter is over, and to look forward to the gathering in of the fruits of the earth.
One of the most successful April-fool jokes was practiced yesterday by the newsboys on Park-row. It consisted in pulling the coat of a passing stranger, and, as the culprit ran off, he let a handkerchief which he had previously concealed in his hand float out loosely behind him. Naturally the indignant stranger supposed that he had been robbed, and the chase which followed, and his disgust on finding -- before he could catch the boy -- that he had been “sold," were heartily enjoyed by the bystanders.