One day a year, since 1878, the White House grounds truly belong to the people. The little people.
The White House Easter Egg Roll is a tradition that began as the solution to a problem that Victorian children created. See, Victorian kids did things to annoy adults, too.
The 1870s version of bottle-flipping or the cups song was egg rolling. Kids did it for hours, rolling hard-boiled eggs with wooden spoons on the Capitol grounds, tearing up the lawn.
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Then Congress had enough and passed legislation to kick them off in 1876. So the rapscallions showed up at the White House, asking President Rutherford B. Hayes to let them use his lawn. He agreed. And the kids kept showing up on Easter Mondays.
By 1880, there was no turning them away. An article in the Washington Evening Star reported that egg rollers “had taken absolute possession of the grounds south of the White House.”
For a few years, the egg rollers were happy to take over the lawn, coming in their Easter best, rolling, tossing and even smashing eggs in games of egg croquet and egg toss. But by 1885, the kids got cheeky again and wanted to see inside the White House.
So they marched inside the East Room, hoping to meet President Grover Cleveland, according to the White House Historical Association. The kids trashed the place, though. The Washington Post reported that they ruined the East Room carpet, which was “ground full of freshly smashed hard-boiled egg and broken egg shells.” But Cleveland didn’t care, he was charmed.
By 1939, the kids came up with another racket. The event had became more and more popular with adults, and the White House had to find a way to control the crowds, according to the White House Historical Association.
A “grown person would be admitted only when accompanied by a child,” the rule said. So naturally, tiny unaccompanied hustlers began hanging out at the gates and renting themselves out to childless adults who wanted to get in. The Secret Service had to be called in the shoo the rent-a-kids away, the Evening Star reported.
For years, local kids and families just showed up at the gates on Easter Monday, earlier and earlier to get in. Eventually, it became so popular that the National Park Service began printing tickets to be picked up a few days before the event.
But those quickly became the hottest tickets in town, and families (well, dads, mostly) began camping on the Ellipse the night before for first crack at the tickets. Tents, sleeping bags, games of poker played on folding tables became as much of an Easter tradition on the White House grounds as the egg rolls.
President Barack Obama changed that by creating an online lottery, busting up the camping dads, but opening up the tradition to kids from all over the country.
Since the lottery system was created, kids from all 50 states have rolled eggs on the South Lawn. None of them are allowed on the carpet anymore, though.
Last year, in the weeks following President Trump’s inauguration, it took a while for administration organizers to get the eggs rolling. But Trump and his wife, Melania, blew whistles to kick off the roll, which drew about 21,000 parents and kids.
On Monday, the tradition will unfold for the 140th year.
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