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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: A Short History of Presidential Inaugural Balls

On May 7, 1789, George Washington held the first inaugural ball. Although inaugural balls date back to the first president, they did not become a tradition until 1809. First Lady Dolley Madison sold four hundred tickets to her husband’s celebration that year for $4 each. In 1833, Andrew Jackson had two inaugural balls. In 1841, William Henry Harrison attended all three of the inaugural balls held in his honor.

Inaugural balls became an exciting event in the city of Washington, DC. The location of the event took on great importance. Organizers needed buildings that could hold large numbers of guests. In 1849, a temporary wooden building was constructed to host one of Zachary Taylor’s inaugural balls. By the time James Buchanan’s inauguration arrived in 1857, multiple inaugural balls were no more; the Inaugural ball took place as one grand event. This new approach required larger spaces to hold the event. To give an idea of how large these events were, here are some measurements of the amount of food provided at Buchanan’s inaugural ball: $3000 worth of wine, 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 1200 quarts of ice cream, 60 saddles of mutton, 8 rounds of beef, 75 hams, and 125 beef tongues.

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as 16th President of the United States. The inaugural ball for his first term took place in a temporary building behind Washington’s City Hall. On March 6, 1865, the ball following Lincoln's second Inauguration took place in the model room of the Patent Office; this marked the first time a government building had ever held such a celebration. The north wing of the Treasury Building held the Inaugural ball for Grant's inauguration in 1869. Unfortunately, the space was too small for dancing and holding their coats. Many guests had to leave without their coats and hats. In 1873, Grant’s inauguration took place in a temporary building. This inauguration had the same bad luck as the first. The temperature was freezing and there was no heat or insulation in the building. Guests had to wear their coats and hats inside. The food and drinks quickly grew cold. It was so freezing that even the caged canaries froze. The National Museum building (now the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building) and the Pension Building became popular spots for hosting inaugural balls. The Pension Building hosted many inaugural balls from 1885 through 1909.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson cancelled the inaugural ball for the first time since 1853. His wife passed away before his inauguration and Wilson did not want an elaborate celebration. His decision disappointed some residents of Washington, DC but not all. Preparations for inaugural balls usually shut down business in the building that hosted the event. For 1913, the ball would have been held at the Pension Building. However, with no ball, people could remain at their work.

In 1921, President-elect Warren G. Harding also requested that the inaugural committee do away with the elaborate ball (and the parade as well). Harding hoped to set an example of thrift and simplicity. Instead of a ball, the chairman of the Inaugural planning committee hosted a huge private party at his home. Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all followed this example. They hosted charity balls instead of inaugural balls.

Harry Truman revived the official Inaugural ball in 1949. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural celebration had to host two events to accommodate eager guests. President Carter created a more relaxed feeling for the Inaugural balls in the late 1970s. He called them parties and tickets cost no more than $25. By the time of President William Clinton’s re-election in 1996, the number of balls reached an all-time high of fourteen. The number of inaugural balls has varied in recent years. Today’s official inaugural balls are planned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Questions for Reading 1

1. When was the first inaugural ball? When did inaugural balls become a tradition?

2. Which inaugural ball was the first ball to take place in a federal building? Which building was it? Why have some inaugural balls been held in temporary spaces built especially for the occasion? What were some advantages and disadvantages of each?

3. Which presidents requested not to have an inaugural ball? What were their reasons?

4. What are some of the things planners had to consider in organizing an inaugural ball?

Reading 1 was adapted from “I Do Solemnly Swear”: A Half Century of Inaugural Images, United States Senate Art & History website, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies website, and the Library of Congress American Memory website.

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