April 7, 2009
National Archives’ Prologue Traces Origins of White House Easter Egg Roll
Washington, DC…The following is a document alert -- part of a program sponsored by the National Archives to notify the media of documents in the National Archives holdings or stories from National Archives publications that are relevant to national holidays, anniversaries or current events. This program, which is based on original records from the National Archives, its 12 Presidential libraries and 13 regional archives, is designed to offer the media an historical perspective on events that occur periodically and to highlight historical antecedents to current political or diplomatic initiatives.
(The following is excerpted from an article by C. L. Arbelbide that appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Prologue magazine, the Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration. View full version of this article and selected images).
By C. L. Arbelbide
© 2000 by C. L. Arbelbide. How special is Easter Monday at the White House?
Special enough to convert the White House grounds into a children's playground. Special enough for Presidents to share the spotlight with the youngest of egg rollers and cuddliest of Easter bunnies.
Access to the South Lawn of the White House, by the general public, is rare at best. But come Easter Monday, and the White House gates swing wide open, admitting a diverse group of little ones, escorted by grownups, to walk, run, and roll up and down the lush green ward.
Easter Monday officially rolled into White House history in 1878, and from its earliest years this children's day of play has occupied every nook and cranny of the President's backyard. Canceled because of two world wars or an occasional bad weather day, the egg roll has endured to become the longest annual presidential tradition of the South Lawn.
It was an Easter Monday custom peculiar to Washington City. Evolving in the post-Civil War years, the festival of egg games evolved on the rolling terraces surrounding the United States Capitol. The gatherings were "very democratic in its character" and mixed without regards to race, color, and "previous conditions of servitude." Childhood knew no social barriers. The scenes were so fresh it was difficult to imagine that Washington had been one of the principal slave markets in the nation.
By an act of Congress approved April 29, 1876, it was made the "duty of the Capitol police hereafter to prevent any portion of the Capitol grounds and terraces from being used as playgrounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury." This law was passed to prevent the practice which had grown up in previous years of children rolling Easter eggs on the Capitol grounds and terraces.
On Easter Monday, 1878, with egg baskets in hands, unknowing egg rollers arrived at the Capitol, only to be turned away by the Capitol Hill police.
How It Came to Be White House History
Just when egg rolling at the White House was first hatched is unknown. Informal egg roll parties had been recorded at the Executive Mansion as early as the Lincoln administration.
The recent discovery of an article in Rutherford B. Hayes's personal scrapbook prompted further newspaper research that confirmed the former governor of Ohio as the first President to officially endorse the use of the White House grounds.
The resounding success of the Easter Monday event meant that no chief executive wanted to be on record as having cancelled the festivities.
But with the outbreak of World War I, the White House canceled the 1917 event. Clarence R. Wilson, food administrator for the District of Columbia, opposed the "Easter custom of egg rolling and the use of eggs as Easter toys." His prediction of the "enormous waste" numbering nearly "50,000 dozen eggs" moved the White House to postpone the event through 1920.
A wartime casualty once again as Americans entered World War II, the 1942 egg rollers reclaimed the Capitol grounds. As Easter of 1946 grew near, Harry Truman reluctantly discouraged the egg roll, encouraging instead "the conservation of food through personal sacrifice where necessary in order that starving millions all over the face of the earth may be given a diet that will sustain life." The renovation of the White House transformed the South Lawn into a construction yard, further postponing the event until 1953.
Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower revived the event in 1953 after a 12-year absence.
At the first Roosevelt egg roll in 1933, Eleanor abandoned the folk dances, introduced organized games, then greeted the public by radio on a nationwide hookup. Technology advances by 1998 permitted Bill and Hillary Clinton to welcome the world's children— live— over the World Wide Web.
The Easter Bunny Arrives
Pat Nixon's staff introduced, in 1969, the White House Easter Bunny (in reality a staffer dressed in a white fleece bunny costume). The bunny, from behind a snow fence, shook hands with one paw while holding onto its oversized head with the other. The next year the bunny roamed the grounds, welcoming the egg rollers and posing for photographs.
Although the outdoor event was canceled on account of rain in 1984, the Reagan staff, led by the costumed Easter bunny, Ursula Meese (wife of Edwin Meese, attorney general, 1985-1988), organized a walk through the White House. The staff distributed prepackaged goody bags, helping to ease the egg rollers' disappointment.
When visitors complained there was "nothing to do," Pat Nixon's staff initiated the first— and last— formal Easter egg hunt using real hard-boiled eggs. Only days later were all the eggs found, having emitted a pungent odor that could be detected by anyone within a few feet or downwind.
By 1974 the most famous of Easter Monday activities— organized egg-rolling races— was introduced. Commandeering stainless steel serving spoons from the White House kitchen, youngsters lined up eight across and, at the whistle, raced down the marked lanes rolling, pushing, and occasionally launching colored hard-boiled eggs (prepared by the White House chefs) into the air on their way to the finish line. A temporary setback for hens occurred when the Fords substituted plastic eggs for real eggs, but Rosalynn Carter returned to the real thing.
The 1981 egg roll went "Hollywood." First Lady Nancy Reagan, who as little Anne Frances Robbins of Bethesda, Maryland, had attended a Coolidge egg roll, viewed the action from the other side of the fence.
The eggstravaganza included assorted clowns and characters, balloon vendors, Broadway show vignettes, a petting zoo, exhibits of antique cars, and an eggxposition of specially decorated eggs (one for each state). Each egg roller received a goody bag filled with a program, toy products supplied by corporate sponsors, and food— whose wrappers littered the lawn. Gigantic balloons from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades began hovering seventy-five feet over the South Lawn fountain, including Bullwinkle the Moose, Olive Oyl (her feet were as long as canoes), Humpty Dumpty, and forty-foot-tall Deputy Dan. The sixty-foot-high Jack in the Box balloon (1985) had to come down due to high wind warnings.
The ultimate eggcitement occurred in 1981, when autographed wooden eggs were discovered in the newest activity— the egg hunt straw pits. Each egg bore a signature, perhaps from a member of Congress, a Hollywood celebrity, or a sports figure. Not all children went home with the coveted prize. In response, ten thousand eggs were distributed in 1982, with celebrities on hand to add their autographs. Since 1987 the event's theme has been inscripted on each egg, and by 1989 George and Barbara Bush added their facsimile signatures. Today the official eggs are given one to a child (under 12) as they leave the South Lawn.
Whether with real or wooden eggs, the White House Easter Egg Roll remains a day of play as energetic in spirit now as it was in 1878. Easter Monday commemorates the eggceptional relationship between a sitting President and the "future generation." While Presidents and egg rollers may be separated by time, they are forever united by this event.
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