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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that John Philip Sousa conducted the Marine Band at an 1893 inaugural ball. The conductor was Francesco Fanciulli.

Dropping The Ball

After So Many Inaugurations, Parties Suffer a Downhill Role

It's not just the ball gowns that have evolved since the first presidential inaugural gala in 1809.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009; Page M01

At the 1893 inaugural ball of Stephen Grover Cleveland, heralded as "a triumph of the electricians' skill" at the time, a canopy constructed of 10,000 square yards of gold bunting hung over a jubilant display of silk, flowers and incandescent light bulbs, which spelled out the names of all previous presidents in gargantuan twinkly letters. A 120-piece orchestra led by John Philip Sousa played for the guests, who could pause from dancing to nibble on 60,000 oysters, 10,000 chicken croquettes, 150 gallons of lobster salad and 1,300 quarts of ice cream, among other things.

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For male attendees who arrived feeling disheveled, a team of 10 barbers stood at the ready to provide on-site cuts and shaves.

At the 1997 inaugural balls of William Jefferson Clinton, guests at certain venues could purchase a plastic box containing a ham and Swiss mini-biscuit for $5.50 and, for an extra $4, a glass of wine dispensed from an 18-liter box. Naturally, that wasn't true of every venue. Some places went the peanuts 'n' frozen cookies route. At the Tennessee ball in Union Station, one resourceful guest brought along her own box of Cheez-Its.

Sadly, sometime in American history, the inaugural ball became, to put it bluntly, hideous.

"Oh, there will be something big hanging from the ceiling and something big hanging from the end of the room, but it won't be beautiful. It will be gaudy," says Letitia Baldrige about the ball experience. Baldrige was Jackie Kennedy's social secretary and has seen the worsening of inaugural balls through several presidential terms. "The music will be great, but you won't be able to hear it over the people asking why they paid so much money for this and why there aren't more bathrooms."

She won't be attending any of the 10 official balls planned for Barack Obama's inauguration, as "I've been through the physical punishment of it enough already."

Yes, Mr. or Ms. Prospective Ballgoer, we know. We know all about the Stuart Weitzmans and the facials, and the dress you have been telling everyone was on sale (and we know it wasn't). We know all about the way you blush when you talk about your invite, because this is not just a party, it is a ball, even if two weeks ahead of time, most details remain TBD. It is the mixer where Cinderella met her future husband.

We know all of this, and we join you in asking: When did this ball go so wrong?

* * *

The first one appears to have been lovely.

The official inaugural ball on March 4, 1809, at Long's Hotel, near what is now the Library of Congress, was the brainchild of that hostess with the mostest, Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth POTUS, James.

Washingtonians were despairing over the lack of social opportunities in the city, and the Madisons knew that keeping them happy would go a long way toward keeping the capital in town. Answer: a ball! A departure from the past precedent of the first three presidents!


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