The Easter Egg Roll and the Bygone Era of White House Openness

For much of its history, the front door of the White House was open to hundreds of daily visitors, a tradition that has almost entirely ended.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It is hard to overstate the hullaballoo that is the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, unfolding Monday on the South Lawn. In the Obama years, the Egg Roll was the day when the president read Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to a group of assembled children, when sunburned interns supervised roving gangs of six-year-olds, and when the likes of Big Bird and the Easter Bunny were required to report to the South Lawn by sunrise, just in time to appear in the morning news show’s footage. For one joyful day, the routinized business of the West Wing takes place practically under the feet of thousands of screaming children zigzagging across the president’s backyard.

While Obama-era egg rolls tended to have about 35,000 attendees, this year’s egg roll is expected to be much smaller, with only around 21,000 attendees anticipated for the event, according to NBC. First Lady Melania Tump’s spokeswoman said that the reason for the smaller size is Melania’s desire to focus on  “the historic aspect of the Easter Egg Roll.”

And yet, the most historic aspect of the White House Easter Egg Roll is its enormous size. It is one of the last vestiges of an original mode of invitation-free White House entertaining, gone since the postwar era, which dictates the president fling open the doors and welcome inside anyone who lines up.

The President’s House by William Seale, the most authoritative history of the White House, gives a vivid account of the first and not particularly sedate White House Easter Egg Roll. Washington children had been rolling eggs down Capitol Hill for decades when in the 1870s Congress barred them from trampling the lawn year-round, including during the Egg Roll.

In 1879, during the Rutherford B. Hayes Administration, Capitol police enforced the law and hundreds of children flocked to the grounds of the White House South Lawn to continue their egg rolling in protest. Seale quotes The Washington Star’s account describing the event: “They [the children] laughed, yelled, and played…in rolling down with their eggs the girls – some of them a pretty good size, too – were totally regardless of the extent of striped stockings displayed.” The activity is interrupted by the appearance of “a ragged and dirty boy of 14” who steals a basket of Easter eggs and is chased down by the police through town, with the other children trailing in pursuit of the action.

But such an influx of citizenry used to be commonplace in the White House. For over a century, the Egg Roll was just one of many annual White House occasions that saw thousands of ordinary Americans flow through the house to shake the president’s hand. (President Trump seems content to avoid the hand shaking part of things, if his recent behavior while greeting a tour is any indication.)

Running through Seale’s books is a current of purposefully crowded White House entertaining.

On the Fourth of July, Thomas Jefferson and his Cabinet stood on the steps of the White House and surveyed the traveling circus that had materialized on the south grounds at dawn. Thousands of people mingled and bought food, drink, baskets and rugs, watched horseraces, cockfights and military drills. After taking in the scene, Jefferson invited the crowd into the White House to, as Seale paraphrases, “partake of this hospitality and his thanksgiving for the preservation of independence.”

People stood in lines around the block to attend Andrew Johnson’s receptions, enduring the hot sun and aching feet, just to shake the President’s hand.  To better the traffic flow, the White House staff built a rolling staircase that could be rolled up to a lifted window to instantly transform it into a door.

John Tyler served just one term, but a sturdy marble table he purchased for $100 served an important function for dozens of presidents—it became a barrier between him and the crush of people clamoring for his hand in the Blue Room.

Among those who benefitted from the table was Abraham Lincoln, who would shake thousands of hands in any one reception. Following the events, he would routinely retire to the residence, where Mary Todd Lincoln would soak and rub her husband’s badly blistered hand. One of these took place on New Year’s Day in 1863, the day on which Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I never in my life,” he said, “felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb… now this signature is one that will be closely examined… If they find my hand trembled they will say, ‘he had some complications.’ But any way it is going to be done.” Seale observes that while the signature did betray a tremor, with it, three million slaves were freed.

For much of its history, the front door of the White House was open to hundreds of daily visitors, who arrived in the foyer with the objective to see the president and spent the rest of the appointed visiting hours lolling there.

Charles Dickens, on his tour of America, described this perennial crowd.

We entered a large hall, and, having twice or thrice rung a bell which nobody answered, walked without further ceremony through the rooms on the ground-floor, as divers other gentlemen (mostly with their hats on, and their hands in their pockets) were doing very leisurely. Some of these had ladies with them, to whom they were showing the premises; others were lounging on the chairs and sofas; others, in a perfect state of exhaustion from listlessness, were yawning drearily. The greater portion of this assemblage were rather asserting their supremacy than doing anything else, as they had no particular business there, that anybody knew of. A few were closely eyeing the movables, as if to make quite sure that the President (who was far from popular) had not made away with any of the furniture, or sold the fixtures for his private benefit.

At various points, the White House’s south grounds were open to the public in seasons of warm weather. Seale recounts a story in which one man approaches Franklin Pierce, and asks, “Mr. President, can’t I go through your fine house? I’ve heard so much about it that I’d give a great deal to see it.” Pierce replies, “Why my dear sir, that is not my house, it’s the people’s house, and you shall certainly go through if you wish.” With that, he summoned a doorman to give the man a personal tour.

The assassination of several presidents and the event of two World Wars caused the end of this era of open entertaining. The Fourth of July and New Year’s Receptions were permanently ended, and the Egg Roll temporarily suspended by wartime president’s Wilson and Roosevelt, only to be brought back by Harding and Eisenhower twice, after WWI and II.

The business of presidential entertaining is rooted in the questions George Washington posed earnestly in letters he wrote Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and John Adams, to ask if the President should live in constant communication with “all kinds of company” or in “total seclusion from society?”

“Would it be sufficient to receive publicly one day a week, or would even so limited a public exposure not merely invite impertinent applications and embarrassing situations insulting to the office of the President? Many things which appear of little importance,” Washington continued, “may have great and durable consequence for their having been established at the commencement of a new general government.”

As the Trumps prepare to welcome a decidedly smaller crowd to today’s egg roll, Washington’s question seems more relevant than ever—how open should a White House be? How many people might call on the president at various stages of the year? And which part of White House history should the Trumps be seeking to emulate as they move through the events that “appear of little importance?”