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When Easter Bunnies had to 'confine their efforts’: White House egg rolls have been canceled before — during war

The White House Easter Egg Roll in 1929. (Library of Congress)

The annual White House Easter egg roll was canceled. Not because of a virus, but to save eggs. Sorry, kids.

The year was 1918, and the United States was at war with Germany. President Woodrow Wilson scratched the White House Easter Monday egg-rolling because federal health officials, led by Herbert Hoover, were combating food shortages. The Spanish flu loomed, as well.

“When Mr. Hoover has been preaching the saving of fats,” one U.S. health official declared, “it goes without saying that he will not quietly contemplate the deliberate destruction of thousands of eggs” to be colored for Easter.

As a result, “Easter Monday Is A Playless Day in Capital,” said the Washington Times headline on a story that began:

“'Mother, may I roll an egg?'

‘No, my darling daughter.

This is war, and Hoover, dear,

Says, you hadn’t oughter.'”

On Monday morning, first lady Melania Trump’s office announced another cancellation of the annual egg roll, this time “out of an abundance of caution” as the covid-19 pandemic sweeps the world.

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The event dates back to 1878. After Congress passed a “Turf Protection Act” banning Easter egg rolling on the U.S. Capitol grounds, President Rutherford B. Hayes invited children to roll eggs with spoons on the South Lawn of the White House.

The egg rolling continued every year until 1917, when the White House grounds were closed for national security reasons as the United States entered World War I.

Then in 1918, with food shortages mounting during the war, District of Columbia health officials doubled down on limiting Easter eggs. Officials banned children’s celebrations with Easter eggs and even got druggists to stop selling egg dye.

“Eggs as Easter presents or toys ought not to be used this year, and egg rolling is especially to be discouraged,” said District Health Administrator Clarence Wilson.

Destroying eggs by coloring them for Easter, he argued, was downright unpatriotic. “The Germans are making every effort to waste our food supplies by sinking ships with their submarines,” he said, “and those of us who waste are helping the Germans in their efforts.”

Hoover’s U.S. Food Administration declined to take an official stand.

“Owing to the sentimental aspect of the question and the psychological effect it might have upon children in connection with the war, the hand of the government shall not be raised either way,” newswire services reported. But others suggested “that Easter rabbits confine their efforts for the small youngsters to imitation eggs. There are said to be attractive tin and wooden eggs.”

Taking a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” approach, Federal Health Administrator Louis M. Cole counseled: “If parents will explain to the kiddies that the bunnies are intensely imbued with patriotism this year, and that the absence of the usual nest of colored Easter eggs is not an oversight but part of a widespread plan to help Uncle Sam, I am sure it will make the right impression on the tads.”

A group of prominent women led by Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry Hoover, and first lady Edith Wilson launched a national drive for a “Egg-less Easter.” By renouncing Easter eggs, they said, the nation’s more than 20 million schoolchildren “would save approximately 60,682,108 eggs for food for the soldiers of our army and people of our allies, figuring three eggs per child.”

The White House Easter egg roll's rich history: 140 years of fun

Some localities joined in. The St. Louis Star newspaper canceled its annual Easter egg hunt, saying, “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson has sent throughout the United States a request that Easter shall be an eggless Easter. She has set the example by saying that the customary Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn will not be held this year.”

Somebody even wrote a poetic praise of Mrs. Hoover:

Mrs. Hoover: Mrs. Hoover is a mover.

In a plan that long has pleased her; Bent on saving, she is braving,

Criticism for an eggless Easter. For a hearing calm she begs;

And for sixty million eggs.”

Several states joined in the cause to some extent. In Indiana, officials said Easter didn’t have to be totally eggless, but families shouldn’t feel justified to consume “more eggs than they would ordinarily.”

The Michigan Red Cross saw an opportunity. “Let us be patriotic and do our bit by Hooverizing and having an egg-less day,” the group said, “and donate the proceeds of our eggs for one day to the Red Cross.”

Some hard-boiled skeptics questioned the anti-eggs effort. “An eggless Easter? Pooh!” retorted one Alabama newspaper. “Take away from the children their highest enjoyment” at Easter time? “Not as long as there are hens and rabbits.” One Illinois newspaper suggested targeting Easter bonnets instead of eggs: “These prominent women at the head of this movement ought to declare Easter day a new hatless one.”

A Washington Star columnist wrote that Easter without eggs was about as likely to happen as a “safe and sane Fourth of July.” The federal food police, he wrote, are “going to cheat a couple of million little boys and girls patriots out of their annual indigestion, as hard-boiled eggs carry more stomach aches to the square yard than a washboard carries wrinkles.”

By 1919, the egg shortage had eased. But the White House egg roll didn’t return until 1921, when new President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence, once again invited children to celebrate Easter Monday on the lawn.

In 1942, with World War II underway, “wartime guards with fixed bayonets” enforced another stoppage of the White House egg rolling. The celebration didn’t take place through the war, plus several years when the White House grounds were being renovated. Finally in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, revived the festivities. The crowd of nearly 30,000 people included their 5-year-old grandson, David Eisenhower.

Though the eggs rolled on each Easter, presidents didn’t take part again until 1976, when President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, put in an appearance along with Kimo the Klown. The Fords introduced plastic eggs to the egg hunt. “I suppose they took the yolk out of the egg roll for reasons of safety — and economy,” a White House spokesman said.

Last year, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump hosted an estimated 30,000 people at the White House egg rolling event. This year marks the first time the celebration has been canceled because of a pandemic. But unlike 1918, America’s children won’t be denied Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny won’t be labeled a traitor rabbit.

Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of “The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too’ Changed Presidential Elections forever.

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