Prologue Magazine

With Easter Monday You Get Egg Roll at the White House

Spring 2000, Vol. 32, No. 1

By C. L. Arbelbide

© 2000 by C. L. Arbelbide

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In 1958 Bunny, Hazel, Fred (Skippy), and Darlene Johansen attend the Eisenhowers' White House Easter Egg Roll. (NARA Eisenhower Library)

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. Special enough for the accounts to debut as the first children's book published by the White House Historical Association. Above all, it is an "eggceptional" relationship in which children have provided Presidents with unconditional love in a sometimes loveless town.

Access to the South Lawn of the White House, by the general public, is rare at best. Only two weekends of the year, during the spring and fall garden tours, can entrance be gained. Walking upon the grass is prohibited— limited to the driveway encircling the grounds— and rarely does the President drop by to say hello.

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. Whether in the midst of the business of state or diverting attention from scandal, Presidents recognize this audience of admirers and despite (and occasionally in spite of) their hectic schedules, make time for a personal appearance much to the delight of both. Franklin D. Roosevelt, when greeting the children in 1939, expressed many a Presidents' unspoken envy when he commented: "I wish I could be down there with you."

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 Took the Children to Teach a City

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.(1)

The banning of "social barriers" at the Capitol so captivated reporters that it dominated local press coverage of the event throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Easter Monday had accomplished what no war could do and what no school or Sunday school system in the District of Columbia would do— voluntarily integrate the children of Washington.

Celebrating Easter

Easter celebrations varied among the numerous immigrant communities, with most activities being confined to family heritage and church activities. As Easter of 1865 approached, the South's April 9 surrender at Appomattox formally ended the Civil War. The resulting euphoria led to a Capital celebration— the Grand Illumination— on Thursday evening, April 13. The effect of all the public buildings "ablaze with glory" was brilliant.(2)

Within twenty-four hours, the joyous mood rapidly turned to shock and disbelief as word of Abraham Lincoln's condition (mortally wounded while attending the theater that Good Friday evening) spread. With the President's death that Saturday, the Capitol braced for its repercussions. In stark contrast, Saturday's preplanned edition of the Evening Star had published the first local press article to feature the meaning of Easter and the unique activity of children trading colored eggs.

By Easter of 1866, the nation was immersed in the political and social issues of reconstruction, resurrection, and social reform. Over the next seven years, Easter activities were reinvented, giving way to showier social gaieties. By 1873 the arrival of "Fashions for Easter" was front-page news.(3) "Now that Easter Sunday approaches, we may expect to be suddenly dazzled by the radiant appearance of our fashionable promenades, as of course every matron and maid will don her newest and best apparel to do honor to the day."(4) By 1874 the Chronicle trumpeted: "To-morrow, Easter Monday, will be a day of general enjoyment throughout the country."(5)

Yet "Washington, after the Civil War, was still a backwater rather than the urban centerpiece of a proud and rich young nation."(6) Despite the finery being worn by its citizens, "Washington was such a ghastly embarrassment that at an 1869 convention in Saint Louis, Horace Greeley spoke eloquently for removal of the capital to the Missouri city."(7) When some of Washington's loyalists ambitiously proposed it for the site of the 1871 World's Fair, "one long-suffering senator objected, 'Let us have a city before we invite anybody to see it.'"(8) Congress abolished the city's charter in February 1871, instituting a territorial government. The laying of sidewalks, installation of sewer lines, and paving of streets (Pennsylvania Avenue was "disastrously paved with wooden blocks in 1871") escalated.(9) Despite the territorial government being replaced in June 1874 with a presidentially appointed three-man board of commissioners, the public works building frenzy could not be deterred.(10)

The spotlight began to focus on the conditions of the city's parks. Landscaped places to stroll and play were few. Two bright spots were Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue north of the President's House, and the "the small fenced park about the Capitol," which had been improved with turf, trees, and flowers.(11) Congressional oratory in early April 1871 encouraged the development of a "grand connected park" from the Capitol to the unfinished Washington Monument to "make Washington the most attractive place in the country."(12)

While grownups filled the city sidewalks with their Easter "fashion promenades," the children claimed the sprawling Capitol grounds as their playground. Encouraged by the schools' decision to declare the day after Easter a school holiday, the children viewed Easter Monday as their "spring break" and special day of play.

On a Roll at the Capitol

The newly extended Capitol with its imposing cast-iron dome, completed during the Civil War, was the center of the city. Neighborhood children found the west front's steep sodded terraces a perfect place to play. "In sitting at the top of these terraces and eating their lunches, of which dyed Easter eggs formed part, some of the children discovered that the colored eggs would roll down the terraces."(13) John C. Rathbone recalled his mother, who had conducted a private school for children in South Washington in the late 1860s, as having marched her pupils, with their lunch baskets, dyed eggs, etc., to the park on the west front of the Capitol, "where a very pleasant day was enjoyed by all."(14)

The first local press coverage reported the egg rollers' shenanigans during the 1872 festivities: "Girls and boys, black and white, big and little, darted in and out of every nook and cranny, romping, with noisy glee, and cracked Easter eggs, and munched their lunches in the Rotunda, littering the floor with debris in utter disregard of the assembled wisdom and majesty in either wing of the building. [Yet] the freshness of the scene was a great relief to those whose duties call them daily to the Capitol to listen to Congressional prosiness."(15) By 1874 the "freshness" had spoiled, and hard-boiled officials "shut out" the egg rollers "from the entrance to the grand dome of the Capitol."(16)

Something Rotten at the 1876 Egg Roll

In the midst of the 1876 egg roll, Rathbone witnessed "the wanton destruction of the grass on the terraces of the park," noting it was "caused by a lot of 'hoodlums' pulling and hauling one another up and down the terrace," and "the school children were in no way responsible."(17)

Unbeknownst to the egg rollers, the damage (estimated in the thousands) came on the heels of an earlier landscaping setback. A $200,000 appropriation for the improvement of the Capitol grounds had been exhausted earlier that February.(18) A Senate bill urging an advance of twenty-five thousand dollars be made from "the regular appropriation for the year commencing July 1" was forwarded to the House of Representatives.(19) Action was delayed for months— well beyond the crucial springtime planting season. To add insult to injury, the bill was returned to an annoyed Senate, reduced by five thousand dollars.(20) The Easter Monday antics, compounded by the length of time it would take to restore the grounds in time for the July Centennial, was the collective straw that broke the Senate's back.(21)

Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, introduced a bill designed "to protect the public property, turf and grass of the Capitol Grounds from injury."(26) Besides banning the egg rollers, the senator proclaimed: "there are other reasons why this bill should be passed," citing the need to protect the monuments erected on the grounds, and "there are cattle crossing the ground here frequently, and the police do not consider it a part of their duty to prevent them."(23) Protecting "the public's property" was not a priority a mere six blocks west of the Capitol. There, bisecting the very grounds being proposed as a "grand connected park," ran the tracks of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad. Its "accounts of killings, maimings, and near-misses" at the crossings had citizens demanding its removal.(24)

Senator Robert Enoch Withers, of Virginia, argued in favor of modifying the bill. "I have a very strong sympathy with those children. I have a very strong inclination to permit them to continue in the enjoyment of what seems to be almost a prescriptive right acquired by custom."(25) "The level ground belonging to the Capitol, the grassy bed, cannot be injured by tramping upon it. It is in fact a benefit to grass to be tramped upon; the sod is improved by it." His appeal rejected, the bill was passed that same day, April 19, then signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant at the end of April.(27)

The egg rollers were expendable, and the nearby "fire-breathing, noisy, dirty, smelly locomotives" remained a scar on the proposed Capitoline Park until 1907.(28) (The Mall would not take on the appearance we see today until the early 1940s.[29]) As for the cattle, they continued to graze. Rain canceled the 1877 Easter Monday fun, postponing the enforcement of the new law.(30) The following year, sharp eyes spotted the warning in the newspaper: NO EGG-ROLLING ON THE CAPITOL GROUNDS. By an act of Congress approved April 29th, 1876, it is 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.(31)

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

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Babara Rose Griffin, age 6, was greeted at the 1938 egg roll by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. (Washingtoniana Division, DC Public Library)

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. Mrs. James S. Delano, a friend of Lincoln's before and after his election, had witnessed Tad Lincoln and his friend Tommy rolling eggs upon the White House grounds:

"See father, my eggs! Cook dyed them! Two dozen— one dozen for the lame Tommy and one for me. Tommy is spending the day, and Isaac has carried your big chair out for him. You can see he can lean over and roll the eggs quite well." Tad led his father to smiling lame Tommy, who received a warm handshake from President Lincoln. Tommy's father had been killed in the war, and his mother was at work in the Treasury, so kind-hearted Tad helped to make Tommy's lot less lonely.(32)

William H. Crook, one-time bodyguard to Lincoln, described one happy feature of "President [Andrew] Johnson's family life in the Executive Mansion" was "egg-rolling on Easter Monday."(33) Although the press reported smaller groups of egg rollers near the White House in 1873 and 1876, the liveliest of gatherings took place at the Capitol until expelled by Congress.

The rejected egg rollers, scrambling for an alternative site, headed for the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Surely "Mr. President" would understand their eggsasperation. To the children of Washington, the chief executive was a familiar figure with the appeal of a surrogate grandfather or favorite uncle. He might be out walking, on horseback, or riding in a carriage. Children could get up close, speak with him, perhaps shake his hand. He was accessible— a stark contrast with today's fast-paced Secret Service motorcades. In return, Presidents were stimulated by the children's boundless imagination and relentless enthusiasm.

Youngsters were welcomed in the White House public reception lines on New Year's Day and following presidential inaugurations, where they positioned themselves for a turn to "formally" shake hands with the President. A strong precedent for children's groups to be received at the White House was established by James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, who welcomed Sabbath school students on Independence Day. Andrew Johnson offered the use of the South Lawn as a formation area for the Washington City Sunday School Union annual "day in May" parades, while their final parade (which included a portion of "The President's Own" Marine Band) marched through the East Room (under Grant's review), down the South Portico steps, and back to Pennsylvania Avenue.

The South Lawn was also the site of the Presidents' public Summer Saturday evening Marine Band concerts. Crowds of adults were drawn to the music while swarms of children played nearby on the rolling mounds landscaped by President Thomas Jefferson. It was to these knolls the egg rollers now headed. The "Jefferson Mounds" have a gentle roundness about them, one that children could not resist wanting to climb. At their summits, egg rollers could launch their hard-boiled eggs to the valley below while others opted for rolling themselves down the lush grassy slopes, despite their fancy clothes, repeating the exercise over and over until either too tired or distracted by other pleasures.

How the egg rolled into official White House history remained a mystery.(34) 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.(35) In Hayes, the only President whose election was finally determined by a fifteen-member commission, the egg rollers found a sympathetic ear.

While out walking a few days before Easter in 1878, Hayes, the father of two egg rollers (young Scott and older daughter Fanny), was approached by a young boy who exclaimed, "Say! Say! are you going to let us roll eggs in your yard?"(36) "Astonished at the matter and manner of this inquiry," he replied, "I don't know. I'll have to see about that."(37) Unfamiliar with the egg roll activity, as it had been rained out during his first White House Easter the previous year, he made inquiries of his staff. Upon hearing the particulars, the President "good-humoredly instructed the officer in charge of the grounds to make no objection if the children came on Monday with their eggs."(38)

"When Monday morning came, the watchmen noticed two or three urchins cautiously spying out the land within the enclosures. Finding no enemy in brass buttons and rattan, these skirmishers retired to a group of small boys outside the grounds to report and consult. Meanwhile their movements had been reported to the household, who took retired posts of observation and watched the proceeding with an amused interest. After a somewhat prolonged consultation, the whole band of boys filed through the gates."(39) "The good news of non-interference soon spread, urchins gathered with miraculous rapidity, and in a short time the grounds were crowded."(40) The Evening Star confirmed: "Driven out of the Capitol grounds, the children advanced on the White House grounds to-day and rolled eggs down the terraces back of the Mansion, and played among the shrubbery to their heart's content."(41)

The next year "on the day before Easter, as the President was taking the air as usual, he was again approached by a small boy who said: 'Are you going to let us roll eggs in your yard this year?' Mr. Hayes understood the question at issue this time and replied that he presumed there would be no objection."(42) By 1880 "the little people seem[ed] to have taken executive clemency for granted, for no small spokesman has accosted the President."(43) The egg rollers simply showed up and "took absolute possession of the grounds south of the White House."(44)

As the Egg Rolled

Over the years, the event's popularity grew, and the South Lawn began to take on the appearance of a national nursery. One fixed rule directed that a "grown person would be admitted only when accompanied by a child" and vice versa. Unattached egg rollers mingled among passing tourists and office clerks, attempting to snare one of them to escort them past the "blue coated" guards. Childless adults also sought out youngsters who, through shrewd negotiations, set the going rate (a nickel, a quarter, or whatever the traffic would bear) for the temporary "adoption." The "odd couples" would march past the guards, "looking pleased with their bargains." Once inside, the youthful escorts could take leave of their "adults" and head out a second gate in search of their next bounty.

The practice continued in such numbers that a 1935 headline screamed, "Children Outside Gates Turn Racketeer and Take Sunday Elders for a Nickel Fee." In contrast to the history-making concert performed by Marion Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday, 1939, the "secret service men" were "stationed at the [White House] gates" the next morning to "break up the kids' rackets." Yet for eleven-year-old Pat Nolan, the "five shining quarters" he earned one Easter Monday went toward the weekly rent for rooms occupied by his mother, himself, and three younger children.(45)

The resounding success of the Easter Monday event meant that no chief executive wanted to be on record as having cancelled the festivities. Rain caused Benjamin Harrison to reschedule the 1891 party, but world events encroached twice to force cancellation.

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."(46) His prediction of the "enormous waste" numbering nearly "50,000 dozen eggs" moved the White House to postpone the event through 1920.(47)

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 personnel sacrifice where necessary— in order that starving millions all over the face of the earth may be given a diet that will sustain life."(48) The renovation of the White House transformed the South Lawn into a construction yard, further postponing the event until 1953.

By 1953 a generation of Washington children had grown up without the event. Neophytes arrived unsure of what they should do. Then the unthinkable happened. One by one, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon were elsewhere on Easter Monday. Gerald Ford's 1976 arrival (one hundred years after Grant signed the bill banning egg rollers from the Capitol), accompanied by First Lady Betty Ford, reinstated the presidential appearance— the first visit by a chief executive since 1960.

Hobnobbing With "Mr. President"

After Hayes welcomed the first egg rollers to the White House, it fell to each succeeding chief executive to determine the fate of Easter Monday. James A. Garfield kept the event rolling in 1881. With his untimely death that September, Vice President, and widower, Chester A. Arthur ascended to the presidency. Residing in the White House with his second child, Ellen ("Nell," born in 1871 and in the same age bracket as many of the egg rollers), Arthur welcomed the energetic egg rollers. A presidential tradition established, the youngsters confidently focused on obtaining a personal audience with "Mr. President."

At the 1885 event, the egg rollers had "early in the day sought permission to see Grover Cleveland in such numbers that the door keepers had to stand guard against them."(49) No matter, the children waited it out in the East Room. Finding a spare moment, the President descended from his second floor office to the East Room, "where not a foot of space was unoccupied."(50) Treading carefully around his diminutive guests, his greeting hand outstretched, Cleveland approached a little fellow holding a "brilliantly dyed egg," who promptly deposited it into the presidential hand, remarking that he had "plenty more in the box."(51) Cleveland's East Room receptions resembled a New Year's Day gathering minus the grownups. The only casualty was the new East Room carpet, which was "ground full of freshly smashed hard-boiled egg and broken egg shells."(52) Returning for a second, nonconsecutive term, Cleveland proclaimed that the "children should be allowed carte blanche in the house . . . as well as the grounds."(53)

Like colorful blossoming flowers, the egg rolling play signaled springtime in the Capital. Many arrived carrying egg baskets. "They were fancy colored, delicately shaped and prettily trimmed with ribbons, and from each peeped a nest full of eggs in all the colors of the rainbow."(54) The children also brought their lunch baskets, "and down near the fountain the cedar and spruce trees were utilized for lunching places, and cloths were spread upon the grass and their appetites satisfied with the contents of generous hampers."(55) Not all who attended could afford the price of eggs nor had the luxury of a lunch box and often settled for the cracked eggs discarded by others. But that aside, it was the children's day to be in charge while the adults were relegated to the sidelines.

With Easter Monday You Get Egg Roll at the White House, Part 2

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.