The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, circa 1907. The image was taken with a hidden camera because photographs were prohibited.
The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, circa 1907. The image was taken with a hidden camera because photographs were prohibited.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries floor traders at U.S. stock exchanges engaged in elaborate and often bizarre pranks. The most common were the cutting off the ties of newcomers, and the classic -- if long forgotten -- April Fool’s ritual of attaching a paper cup to a trader’s jacket and surreptitiously filling it with water.

Perhaps the biggest spur to trading-floor mischief was boredom on low volume days. An 1898 New York Times article titled “Stock Market Erratic” noted that “the market slump began at 1 p.m., and the market, which from the opening had been free from violent demonstrations of excitement, became almost dull and listless, and the gallery spectators were treated to an exhibition of floor pranks for an hour.”

A week later, the paper reported that “nearly the whole day was given over to pranks -- from throwing paper to simulated ring encounters.”

These antics weren’t limited to the stock exchanges. An 1884 New York Times article reported that “since dullness overtook the coffee trade several weeks ago the Coffee Exchange has been gradually transformed into a scene of hilarity.”

‘Ordinary Pranks’

In addition to the “ordinary pranks” involving the clothing of exchange members and officials (no hat or suit was safe), the weeks with little trading activity resulted in a surge of assaults with wads of wet paper, which affixed themselves to the members’ faces and broke several window panes. The culprits were fined up to $5 in addition to the cost of replacing the broken glass.

Newcomers were the frequent targets of pranks. According to folklorist Nancy Groce, author of “Lox, Stocks and Backstage Broadway: Iconic Trades of New York City,” cutting ties and ripping shirt sleeves were common rites of initiation for new traders at the New York Stock Exchange.

Another popular prank for novices and veterans alike involved talcum powder. “All of a sudden everyone would start screaming ‘It’s snowing in New York!’” according to an NYSE trader quoted in Groce’s book, “and I’d look down and they had put baby powder all over my shoes.”

Likewise, a 1964 New York Times article reported that the “oldest of gags” at the NYSE consisted of sending a new member into a crowd with an order to buy an imaginary stock. “The other brokers in the crowd, who are in on the joke, keep bidding up the price while elbowing the neophyte member out of strategic position. The price soars and he sweats. Then finally he gets the point and everybody laughs.”

Groce’s book describes an elaborate prank involving a NYSE trader whose colleagues thought he was becoming pompous. One summer, the trader took to wearing a white straw bowler hat to work. His colleagues, eager to make a point about his inflated ego, purchased several of the same hats in decreasing quarter-sizes. Each week, the hat would be replaced with a smaller one. As it rode higher and higher on his head, the trader began to question the fit, only to be assured by his colleagues that his head was swelling.

Pranks became considerably less funny in the mid-to-late 20th century, however, with the introduction of substantial fines for perpetrators.

A 1969 New York Times article titled “Exchange’s Talcum Throwers Are Advised to Take a Powder” reported that “after decades as one of the New York Stock Exchange’s most closely observed rituals, the dousing of prospective bridegrooms with talcum powder on the exchange’s trading floor has been banned.”

The article stated that water-pistol fights, water balloons and other pranks would also be forbidden, and that pranksters would be subject to fines up to $1,000.

Disrupted Trading

According to an exchange official, the pranks had become more disruptive as trading-floor personnel expanded along with increased trading volumes on the exchange floor. The enforcement action was prompted by “several recent incidents of pranksterism that had disrupted some trading and caused damage to some of the electronic communications devices on the trading floor.”

In 1992, the New York Times reported that the Pacific Stock Exchange in Los Angeles had released a memo ordering its members to “cease and desist with antics that include rubber band snapping and sniping with spitballs.” First-time offenders would be subject to $1,000 fines, while persistent offenders could be fined up to $5,000.

By that time, the NYSE and the American Stock Exchange in New York also had prank-related regulations in place. At the NYSE, $250 fines were imposed for first-time offenses, with $500 fines for repeat infractions. The Amex’s rule prohibited the “throwing of objects on the trading floor,” with penalties of up to $500.

Exchange-floor pranks had been waning even before fines were introduced. As electronic trading gained and the number of people working on the trading floors decreased, pranks and practical jokes took their place in financial history alongside ticker tape and teletypes. Today, you are almost as likely to see a live bull at an exchange as to witness a prank -- except, perhaps, on April Fools’ Day.

(Kristin Aguilera is the deputy director of the Museum of American Finance and the editor of Financial History magazine. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this post: Kristin Aguilera at kaguilera@moaf.org

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net