On the eve of the big day, a little inaugural history


The inauguration of President James Garfield as depicted by an unknown artist. (Library of Congress)
John Kelly
Columnist January 19, 2013

Answer Man often finds himself pondering a question: How will we be thought of a hundred years from now?

By “we,” Answer Man means Washingtonians, circa 2013. He knows how we think of our counterparts from a hundred years ago: primitive, quaint, often courtly, recognizable in many ways, but more blatantly prone to superstition and racism and also possessed of a mind-set — at least as expressed in newspaper articles — that can strike a modern observer as naive, free from the cynicism that seems to permeate today’s media.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

And yet it’s our perception of them that makes reading their words now so entertaining.

For example, think of the inaugural events of the 19th century. There was just one inaugural ball in 1881 for James Garfield, held at the National Museum (what we know today as Arts and Industries). Then as now, The Washington Post reported on preparations, noting that in the days leading up to the ball, curious visitors flocked to the museum to see the decorations. The only thing they could see one day was the floor being waxed.

“It is said that there has never been a ball-room floor to equal it,” The Post reported breathlessly. “The wax is being put on very carefully. The preparation is made of beeswax in benzine. It is first placed on the floor, and then a second coat with adamantine is put on, and then it is rubbed very carefully with beeswax, making a very smooth floor for the dancers.”


The inaugural ball in the Pension Building during the 1889 inauguration of President Benjamin Harrison. (Library of Congress)

Four years later, Grover Cleveland’s inaugural ball was in the new Pension Building. How new? Well, the building wasn’t even finished. There were walls and a floor but no roof. According to The Post, “Gen. Meigs, who has charge of its construction, says that the only thing to be done will be to erect a temporary roof, probably of canvas, to put down a dancing floor and to purchase the coal with which to warm the building.”

The ball in the makeshift building was considered a success, attracting about 5,000 people. One Post article featured the delightful headline “Who Were at the Ball. Wealth, Brains and Beauty Crowd the Enormous Hall.”

In a section headed “The Toilets,” an unnamed Post reporter recounted in detail the outfits of hundreds of society women:

Mrs. F.M. Huffaker, Virginia, elegant toilet of gendarme blue velvet brocade, with satin draperies; corsage high, with bouquet of roses; large solitaires and new gold gloves.

Miss Julia Demmitt, of Batavia, Ohio, light silk toilet, with natural flowers.

Miss Frazier, of Chicago, creme silk watteau backskirt, cut walking length; duchess lace garniture; hair worn high and confined with ivory comb.”

Not everything was a success at the 1885 inauguration. Railroad traffic was so bad that many people arrived too late to witness the inaugural ceremonies. Irate passengers on one train penned a resolution: “We, the passengers on the . . . through sleepers advertised to arrive in Washington at 8:50 a.m., March 4, 1885, for the inauguration at Washington, do hereby signify our great displeasure and indignation at the delays made . . . whereby we have been deprived of reaching our destination within several hours of the scheduled time.”

If they were around today, they’d be skewering WMATA on Twitter.

In 1889, The Post reported on a novel suggestion for Benjamin Harrison’s inaugural parade: “It is to have a ladies’ battalion in line.” Women had never participated in the parade, though it was apparently common in Indiana, where “the last election . . . saw great numbers of ladies marching through the streets, and they caused great enthusiasm.”

Apparently, women did not march in the 1889 parade, possibly because of an article in The Post the next day. The paper asked some women what they thought of ladies marching. “Shall Women Parade?” the headline read, answering in a subhead: “They Do Not Favor the Idea.” Wrote The Post: “The idea is too much of an innovation to find favor here.”

Actually, if you read the story, that isn’t quite what the women said.

“We want the right to vote before we have the right to march,” said Sarah Doan La Fetra, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Lura M. Ormes, a Washington lawyer in practice with her mother, Belva Lockwood, said since she believed women should be accorded the same privileges as men, why shouldn’t they march?

As for herself, “I wouldn’t walk up Pennsylvania avenue for either of the old parties,” Ormes said. “They are too corrupt.”

Maybe Washingtonians weren’t so naive back then after all.

Have a question about Washington’s distant, or not-so-distant, past? Write answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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