Julie Winterbottom is the former editor in chief of Nickelodeon magazine, where she fulfilled her childhood dream of getting paid to write jokes; her book, Pranklopedia: The Funniest, Grossest, Not-Mean Pranks on the Planet! is on sale now. Julie lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she pulls pranks on her boyfriend and cat.
No one knows who pulled the first prank, but it’s safe to say that humans have been hoaxing each other for well over 1000 years. Here are some of the oldest pranks on record.
1. The Emperor’s New Cushions
According to historical accounts, the teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus, who ruled from 218 to 222 A.D., was a murderous tyrant who indulged in endless debauchery. It's said that he once suffocated his dinner guests under a mountain of rose petals. But in one of his lighter moments, Elagabalus apparently pulled a genuine prank. He placed deflatable leather pillows around a low table and seated his most pompous guests on them. During the course of the meal, his slaves let the air out of the cushions, leaving his guests seated on the hard floor. (Considering the alternatives, perhaps they were relieved to be victims of such a harmless practical joke.)
2. Pranks in the Abbey
In the 15th century, an English monk named Thomas Betson described how he fooled his fellow friars by placing a live beetle inside a hollowed-out apple, causing the fruit to rock back and forth by itself. Witnesses believed the fruit was possessed. Betson wasn’t the only mischievous monk at work during medieval times. Other manuscripts give tips on how to make a bed itchy and how to make meat look wormy.
3. Kick Me, I’m English!
Anyone who has stuck a Kick Me sign on someone’s back has a direct link to English pranksters of the 18th century. Small-scale practical jokes were quite popular in England in the 1700s. Tricks from that era include tying a string to a purse, placing it in the street, and then yanking it away when someone tried to pick it up, and sending someone on a “sleeveless errand” to buy a non-existent product. Apprentices to tradesmen were often victims of the sleeveless errand joke. They would be sent to the market to get striped paint, pigeon’s milk, or elbow grease. Later, this prank made its way into professional baseball, where rookie batboys are told to go get the key to the batter’s box.
4. Would You Like That Delivered?
In 1810, Englishman Theodore Hook engineered an audacious caper that makes calling in a prank pizza delivery look like child’s play. During the course of a single day, Hook had nearly every product and service available in the city of London delivered to the home of a Mrs. Tottenham. First thing in the morning, a load of coal arrived. Soon after, deliveries of furniture, musical instruments, flowers, bread, fish, a wedding cake, and countless other goods showed up at her doorstep. Doctors, dentists, gardeners, undertakers, even the Mayor of London were all sent to the woman’s house until there was a huge traffic jam on her street. Hook had made a bet with a friend that he could turn any home into the most talked-about address in London. Needless to say, he won.