The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
With April first right around the corner, thoughts drift towards pranks and practical jokes. Despite its reputation for staid government workers, the citizens of Washington have enjoyed a good April Fool’s prank or two over the years.
The story of my favorite prank comes out of the Smithsonian employee newsletter, Local Notes. Secretary Charles Walcott started Local Notes to “maintain a degree of current familiarity on the part of its employees both with one another and with the field of operations covered by the Institution as a whole.” It reports the comings and goings of Smithsonian staff and happenings in and around the museums. If you want to know about staff hobbies or the Institution’s day to day activities, this is the place to go. In 1919 Local Notes reports that Washingtonians’ high spirits on April Fool’s Day caused some problems for the National Zoo: over six hundred people attempted to call asking for Mr. Lyon, Miss Seal and Mr. Fox.
While I’m sure it was a fun and harmless prank to the many Washingtonians who picked up their phones, to the telephone operators working the switchboards that day, this had the potential for being a catastrophe. This influx of calls was more than they could handle – effectively shutting down the whole telephone system and preventing any regular calls from coming through! Luckily smart thinking (and some hard-earned wisdom from prior experience) prevented the entire telephone system from going down. The staff of the National Zoo worked with the local telephone company, who intercepted the 614 phone calls for “Mr. Fox, Mr. Lyon, Miss Wolf, or Miss Seal.” Local Notes reports that it “required the entire time of two operators at the exchange during the busy hours when ‘fool’ calls were coming in at the rate of several a minute. A large portion of these calls come from Government Departments where the wires are already taxed to handle necessary business.”
It seems those government employees had a pretty good sense of humor after all! Though it may have caused headaches for the telephone operators who had to deal with these prank phone calls, one can only hope that they also brought smiles to the faces of pranksters within the Federal Government workforce who had recently worked through World War I. Hopefully, Zoo employees found it at least a little amusing, too.
Record Unit 0298, Local Notes Newsletter, 1916-1933, Smithsonian Institution Archives
National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution Archives