And in an article for Defunct, Paul Collins writes about a prank from 1884 (just eight years after the first-ever telephone call), reportedly chronicled in Electric World magazine thusly:
A Grave Joke on Undertakers.—Some malicious wag at Providence, R.I., has been playing a grave practical joke on the undertakers there, by summoning them over the telephone to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffins for persons alleged to be dead. In each case the denouement was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lively manner for that telephonist
From then to now, most people have tended to make prank calls during a brief window of adolescence. The few studies on prank calls that exist estimate that the pastime is most popular among kids from ages 11 to 14 or 15. In her 1973 paper “Telephone Pranks,” the folklorist Norine Dresser writes that the pranks “serve several social needs” for kids that age. The calls are almost always made in groups, her survey found, so there’s a bonding element, and “the caller becomes the center of attention among his peers.”
Dresser, Jorgensen, and Harris all note that a prank call also serves as a sort of low-stakes rebellion, a chance to embarrass the adults that usually have power over them. “Telephone pranks serve … as a means of releasing hostility and frustration with a minimum risk of retaliation,” Dresser writes.
There are several classic forms this can take. Perhaps the most well-known is the “catch question,” à la “Is your refrigerator running?” A few others:
“Hello. Is John in the house?”
“Where do you go then? In the sink?”
“Is Frank Walls there?”
“Is Pete Walls there?”
“Are there any Walls there?”
“Then what’s holding up the roof?”
[Calling a store:]
“Do you have pop?”
“Send him home; Mom wants him.”
These questions often rely on puns. “There is also a certain amount of linguistic delight in discovery,” Harris writes. “Pranksters become aware of the power of words in unusual or different contexts.”
In another common genre of phone prank, the caller pretends to be from the telephone company and tries to get the answerer to do something, like blow in the phone to “fix” it.
In one variation, the caller warns them not to answer the phone for 15 minutes “because if they do, the telephone repairman will receive a fatal shock,” as one survey respondent told Harris. Then the prankster calls over and over again in the next 15 minutes, “and if they answer let go a blood curdling scream.”
“In executing the [telephone company] prank, he is able to assume a position of authority … make demands … and have the majority of these demands carried out,” Harris writes. This is probably particularly satisfying for kids, who usually carry out adults’ demands.
In fact, in the early days of the phone, the pranksters sometimes were telephone-company employees. When Bell Telephone first started back in 1878, the company hired teen boys to be its operators, thinking they’d make for cheap, energetic labor. And they did, but as my colleague Megan Garber wrote in 2014:
They also regularly played practical jokes on those customers. The boys disconnected calls as they were still taking place. They purposely crossed lines so that strangers would suddenly find themselves talking to each other. Bell's chief engineer ended up referring to the boys as "Wild Indians."
The boys were ultimately fired—this is partly why women ended up working as telephone operators in a time before it was common for them to work outside the home.