Modern times have had the unfortunate effect of nearly isolating presidents and first ladies from the people they serve. But at one time, the New Year's Day Reception at the White House was an institution where all of humanity -- regardless of station in life or dress -- could actually shake hands with their Chief Executive, after waiting hours on a line that stretched around and around the Executive Mansion. Besides getting totally out of hand, it ached the president's hand, so the practice was abolished in 1930. The Fourth of July party, begun by George Washington, also for the public, saw its demise in the mid-19th century when presidents began getting out of town on the 3rd.
And yet one day of public-presidential face-to-face contact continues. Actually, it is for the children that it endures. For more than a century, the White House lawn has been open to any adult accompanied by a child for the annual Easter Egg Roll, and presidents and first ladies have rarely missed the chance to court the youngest generation. (This year's Roll takes place tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with entry through the southeast gate beginning at 10. Children 8 and younger, accompanied by an adult, are welcome.)
The effervescent Dolley Madison got the egg rolling, although not at the White House.
It was after the second war between England and its former colonies, the War of 1812, that Madison's son by her first marriage, Payne Todd, approached her with a great concept in public relations. Payne had been shuttled to school in Baltimore and then shuttled to Europe to assist the commissioners negotiating a peace treaty. He was not a model son: heavy drinking, See EGG ROLL, H4, Col. 1 womanizing and gambling characterized most of his life. Yet Payne is responsible for the first Easter Egg Roll, which took place in 1816.
Payne had either read or heard about an egg hunt or rolling contest that the ancient Egyptians had practiced. Evidently, the Egyptians rolled brightly colored eggs along the sand to the base of the pyramids. There, the eggs provided an interesting contrast to the solemn white triangles. Payne suggested that his mother, a favorite among Washington children, hold a similar event for them. It was particularly appropriate at that time as a symbol of life in a city that just a year and a half earlier had been burned by the British.
Dolley Madison liked the idea and, according to legend, tinted and dyed by hand hundreds of hard-boiled eggs herself. Exactly where this first Easter Egg Roll was held is uncertain. Neither the White House nor the Capitol lawns were in good condition then, with muddy patches of strewn wood and masonry scattered about. Tradition has it, however, that the Capitol lawn was the site, and this is probably the case, considering its size and sloping hill. In any event, it became a local holiday for Washington children every Easter Monday.
For more than 50 years the Egg Roll was held on the west lawn of the Capitol, with very little participation from presidential families, stemming probably from the fact that until 1861 there were no young president's children living in the White House. That year, when Abraham and Mary Lincoln came to Washington, they brought their 7-year-old son, Tad.
Tad Lincoln was a prankster who provided his parents with some comic relief during the tense Civil War years. One account recalled that the thoughtful youngster made a point of sharing his Easter eggs with a child who was crippled and then requested a chair for the handicapped boy. Throughout the day, Tad Lincoln came back to check on his friend, "watching over him with tact and sympathy."
The next president, Andrew Johnson, had several small grandchildren living with him. Colonel Crook, a White House staff member, wrote in his memoirs that the tubercular first lady, Eliza Johnson, "on Easter Monday . . . would come downstairs and sit in the portico, sheltered from the winds, where she could see all the fun and hear the shouts of laughter; and I am sure that nobody enjoyed the egg-rolling more than she. After it was over she would return to her room and her rocking chair."
These two recollections -- of Tad Lincoln and Eliza Johnson -- refer to the fact that the Egg Roll was at the White House, which contradicts the long-held belief that it was held there first by Lucy Hayes in 1880. Smaller gatherings of children, or perhaps special guests of presidential family children, may have held their own exclusive Egg Roll on the White House lawn while the masses hit the Capitol. A clue to when and where it was held can be found in the late 1880s newspaper accounts of Frank G. Carpenter, Washington correspondent for the Cleveland Leader. At that time, "Carp" wrote: "In President Lincoln's day Tad was noted as best egg-roller of all, and the small members of the households of Grant and Hayes have laughed and shouted there as loudly as any of the visitors. This egg-rolling has taken place in the White House grounds every Easter Monday for nearly thirty years. A Washington paper of 1860 speaks of it already being the custom. In earlier years the children used to gather . . . near the Capitol, but their sliding down the terrace spoiled the grass. So Congress had to forbid it . . ."
This unfortunately leaves in limbo the true role played by "Lemonade Lucy" Hayes in starting the White House Easter Egg Roll, or at least it leaves it somewhere strewn in between the Capitol lawn and the White House lawn. Evidence is still on her side.
Nine-year-old Fanny Hayes and Scott Hayes, 6, had been to the Capitol lawn to roll eggs for the first three years of their father's presidency. They were as pouty as other Washington children were when the 44th Congress in 1880 issued a law in the United States Statutes at Large prohibiting forever all egg rolls on its property. Tensions between House and Senate clerks and messengers and the capital kids had been mounting as the more terrible of enfants threw eggs around and caused ruckuses, resulting in broken shells, smelly yolks and headaches for lawmakers.
In 1874, Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect who designed Central Park, came to Washington, commissioned to turn the Capitol's hills, ruts and knolls into refined grounds. The invading juvenile armies of Easter Monday had finally been vanquished, but the mother of Fanny and Scott became the crusade's heroine by declaring that all bunnies, babies and eggs could come to the White House since they were no longer welcome at the Capitol. The Washington National Republican of March 29, 1880, accounts the day and credits the lady. So while Lucy Hayes may not have actually had the very first White House Egg Roll, she had the first official one.
Part of the excitement for the children, or more accurately the adults, was the presence of the president and his family mingling among the strewn hats and straw baskets. Widower President Chester Alan Arthur and his daughter, Nell, who lived in the Executive Mansion with him, always walked through the grounds on Easter Monday. Nell was so kept out of public view that she could romp without anyone realizing who she was.
For Grover and Frances Cleveland, it was a day of fun and laughter. Cleveland held a special reception in the mansion in 1887 for the "little pickaninnies of three, four and five" who "trotted in with baskets of colored eggs on their arm." It was a very democratic event as "the small sons and daughters of Senators and Generals, of department clerks and store clerks, pushed one another about in the friendliest . . . way possible." Cleveland, however, refrained from kissing any of the children, not wanting to be a chief executive with egg on his face. He begged off by claiming that if he kissed one he would have to kiss all. As the president and first lady promenaded on the lawn, the presidential pet, Hector the dog, ran around the lawn eating broken eggs. After a few hours, Hector disappeared. He was getting sick in the basement.
One of the problems White House clerks and executive office workers soon discovered, however, did not occur on Easter Monday, but Easter Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and through the rest of the week. Thousands of broken eggs left on the lawn and the environs of the area began to rot in the sun and "the odor infested the air three squares away." Members of the Metropolitan Club nearby were seen leaving with their handkerchiefs to their faces. Evidently it didn't bother President Cleveland, since after 30 minutes of exposure to the smell he got used to it and continued to work with his windows open.
Cleveland's successor, Benjamin Harrison, brought with him a little Ben, his grandson, who was the first White House child to become a press celebrity. So popular was "Baby McKee" that when the president, his wife and her father, the elderly Dr. Scott (who lived with them), came out on the South Portico, they did not allow "Baby" to be brought into the crowds of swarming kids for fear of his being rushed. Instead they stayed safely on the portico, waving and acknowledging the wild applause. Harrison initiated an Easter Egg Roll first. He had a large wooden stand erected on the lawn several days before the Roll. As children stormed around the stand in curiosity, the Marine Band in single file marched down the gravel driveway and into the stand. At the end of the line was John Philip Sousa. For the first time, music filled the air at an Egg Roll.
By the time Quentin, Archie and Ethel Roosevelt were enjoying the Roll, hosted by their father, Theodore, the day had literally turned into a big picnic. Thousands of children accompanied by an equal number of parents, guardians and nannies ate their lunch from picnic baskets and pails, turning the genteel lawn into a littered public park for a day. By 1902 the event had become so crowded that the afternoon East Room party, which had become part of the day's festivities, was canceled by Edith Roosevelt. The imperious first lady did not approve of the Roll. "It seems such needless destruction of the lovely grass," she said.
During the early Wilson years in Washington, segregation began to encroach on the daily life of the city's black residents, visitors and workers. Housing, entertainment, restaurants, government restrooms and lunchrooms were separate for blacks and whites. Even social events, like the Inaugural Ball, were ruled by racism. Through all of the bitterness and prejudice, one Washington institution remained full of innocence and free of division by race or class. For several hours, once a year, the Easter Egg Roll remained integrated.
With the outbreak of America's participation in World War I, the Egg Roll was canceled as concern over security forced the gates of the White House closed. They remained so after the war as Woodrow Wilson lay ill inside, never to fully recover from a debilitating stroke.
President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding, or "Sonny" and "Duchess," as they called each other, resurrected the Egg Roll in 1921. Although they did not have any children, the Hardings loved to surround themselves with "kiddies," as they called them. The Duchess had several bands playing and invited special contingencies of school, patriotic, crafts, religious, athletic and camping groups of children. Flanked by Girl Scouts, the first lady appeared in her own adult-size Girl Scout uniform, and started the tradition of appearing with the White House pet. In this case, it was the nationally known airedale, Laddie Boy.
Duchess' successor, Grace Coolidge, one-upped her in 1924. Grace dramatically made her way down the South Portico stairs into the sea of people in a large '20s picture hat, flanked by all the Cabinet wives and with her two white collies, Rob Roy and Prudence Prim, on either side of her. In her arms, the first lady held the most bizarre of White House pets, Rebecca the raccoon. More than 100,000 children were present and former president and now Chief Justice William Howard Taft was rather pessimistic, predicting horrible stomachaches and that "dreadful mess of the greenswards." Within the crowd of children during the Coolidge years was a little girl living in Bethesda, Anne Frances Robbins, who later came to future Egg Rolls as an adult.
On April 1, 1929, overcast skies did not daunt the 20,000 children who came to Lou Hoover's Egg Roll. The White House police sergeant, Clarence Dalrymple, admitting the thousands at the gates, said that "if any nationality on earth was not represented" he did not know which it was. Mrs. Hoover's personal assistant, Mildred Hall, was egged on by her boss to oversee the event, and it was one of the most efficiently and smoothly run to that time. Mrs. Hoover also approved setting up a rule that would finally limit the number of overgrown children who had been sneaking onto the lawn sans real children: No adults were admitted to the Egg Roll unless accompanied by a child younger than 8 years old. It made for mini-merchants. Some enterprising unescorted boys did a thriving business at the gates, selling the privilege of their escort to adults curious to get a look at the new first lady -- a dubious tradition that has discreetly continued.
Laddie Boy, Rob Roy, Prudence Prim and even Rebecca couldn't hold a candle to the most famous of White House pooches, Fala the scottie, who was present at all the FDR Egg Rolls. It was events like the Egg Roll that Eleanor Roosevelt felt strongly about. She often voiced the opinion that the White House and its grounds should be considered public property, much to the consternation of the Secret Service, and she never missed a roll from 1933 to 1941. With Fala and one or two of her grandchildren, the first lady, often appearing in her morning riding outfit, strode through crowds on the lawn without any security men following her.
As America entered World War II, the White House Easter Egg Roll was again stopped in its bunny tracks. For a while it looked like it might never happen again. The Trumans did not revive it after the war, and couldn't for several years -- because of White House renovations, the lawn was filled with building equipment.
The grandparents came out in Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower in 1953 when they brought back the Egg Roll after an absence of almost 15 years. The Eisenhowers were both present, marking the return of the president to the Roll, and they were accompanied by their little grandchildren.
By contemporary times the numbers of children and adults attending the Roll grew to enormous proportions, particularly as tourism in Washington boomed and the Roll coincided with the Cherry Blossom Festival. Some kind of organization was required. By the 1960s, games were held down to the traditional roll, where children in various age categories lined up to roll their eggs with spoons in a contest for the fastest roller. The roll itself was, of course, just a minor event of the day. Esthetics and art finally came into the fray when First Lady Pat Nixon in 1970 arranged a contest for the most original and colorful designs.
Nancy Reagan has done as much for the Roll as Dolley Madison and Lucy Hayes. It is now a bona-fide media event, with a full day's activities. In 1981, Mrs. Reagan established the "American Artists' Egg Exhibit," a display of painted wood eggs by famous artists and cartoonists that became a permanent touring exhibit. Additionally, she suggested "Painted Eggs of the World," which foreign embassies helped arrange, featuring folk art from European, Asian and South and North American countries. Both displays, in plexiglass cases on the south lawn, were major attractions.
On April 12, 1982, perhaps the most diverse Roll ever held buzzed like a three-ring circus, and the egg roll contest was only a very small part of it. That day a special Egg Hunt was initiated in hay patches on the lawn. In the hay were hundreds of painted wood eggs autographed by everyone from the president and first lady to Lucille Ball, Jane Fonda and Phyllis Diller. The hunt had been tried the year before on a smaller scale and has remained part of the Roll. There was also a strong wind from the Big Apple -- literally in the air -- as a gargantuan balloon from the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade bobbed above. In 1982, it was Bullwinkle the Moose, and a year later it was Olive Oyl. Broadway show vignettes played continuously on a stage, interspersed with magic shows and other entertainment. On the lawn were antique cars from the turn of the century to 1940, a children's animal farm, a kite-flying demonstration, balloon vendors and clowns, and the musical entertainment of the Marine Band of Harrison's Roll was now backed up by four other military bands. There was also a tongue-in-cheek touch with oversized cardboard cutout figures of "Alice in Wonderland" characters made by Corcoran School of Art students, but with their faces replaced with the even more familiar political celebrities of the Reagan administration. The Queen of Hearts was no less than the first lady.
It seems like a big children's party, but it is more than an afternoon of crying kids, broken pink eggshells and ice cream melted on socks. It is the last holdout of truly democratic events of the president's house for all the public. Then, too, one never knows just who those children might be. One little girl, now grown into a woman, who had been there years before when Rebecca the raccoon debuted, evidently enjoyed herself so much that she has enthusiastically returned to the Roll since her husband went to work for the government several years ago, and she came back to the area. Although little Anne Frances Robbins didn't move back to Bethesda, she did get a perspective on the Roll from the other side of the fence -- as Nancy Reagan.