Of the two accounts which recall how young Tad Lincoln hosted a little egg-rolling contest in order for a disabled friend of his named Tommy, who needed crutches to walk.
It is recorded that Tommy’s mother worked as a clerk at the Treasury Building and was the widow of a Union Army soldier and these facts, as well as the family’s schedule pinpoint this first known White House Easter Egg Roll as having taken place on either the second or the fourth Easter which the Lincoln family celebrated in the White House, either April 21, 1862 or March 28, 1864.
Neither of the two eyewitness sources mentions Mary Lincoln being present or watching the event.
Documentation does show, however, that a far more obscure First Lady was likely the first to appear at a White House Easter Egg Roll event.
In his memoirs, White House clerk William Crook recorded the fact that, despite her chronic condition of tuberculosis limiting most of her public appearances on the state floor at public social events, First Lady Eliza Johnson came out onto the South Portico to watch her five little grandchildren rolling colored eggs on Easter Monday and taking great delight in watching their games.
There was no mention, however, about whether there were other children present.
What is established as fact is that, formally or informally, sometime before or after the Civil War era, children of Washington were coming to the greensward of the U.S. Capitol Building the Monday after Easter Sunday, where its sweeping lawn provided the perfect place to hold contests to see who could roll their brightly-colored dyed Easter eggs along with a spoon the fastest.
After leaving a litter of paper and straw, and the stench of broken eggs rotting in the sun, however, the children irritated the members of Congress working just inside. It led to passage of the Capitol Building Turf Protection Law, enacted on April 21, 1876.
This was the last Easter which Julia Grant marked as First Lady in the White House, but there is no indication that the Grants invited the city children to roll their eggs on the White House lawn or even that they held any sort of festivity for their own young children and their friends.
Rain drowned out any chance of Easter egg-rolling anywhere in Washington in 1877.
Credit for starting the Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn has traditionally been given to First Lady Lucy Hayes in 1878, her second Easter in the White House, but the more precise accounts credit her husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes with granting permission for the White House lawn to be used by the Washington children who had been banned from their annual custom on the U.S. Capitol lawn.
Although Lucretia Garfield was living in the White House on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1881, she was by then beset by malaria and bedridden. Taking place two days before her birthday, it proved to be the only one she marked in the White House due to her husband’s assassination several months later.
Molly McElroy, who served as First Lady for her widowed brother President Chester Arthur was not in residence at the White House for Easter of 1882.
The following year, in following the old tradition of ending the White House social season of receptions and dinners on Ash Wednesday, she departed Washington on March 11 for her permanent home in Albany, New York, exactly two weeks before Easter.
She remained longer in the White House in 1884, however, and thus would have been able to attend the Easter Egg Roll held that year, her brother’s final one as President.
Her immediate successor Rose Cleveland was also a presidential sister serving as First Lady and in residence at the White House on Easter Monday April 6, 1885 but there were no reports of her attending the event that year or the next.
Rose Cleveland was also decidedly absent at the side of her brother, bachelor President Grover Cleveland, when he came down from his office to shake hands with exuberant egg-rollers eager to shake his hand or even just glimpse him.
The incident was carefully recorded in local newspapers at the time and it became a custom for him.
On April 9, 1887, The Memphis Appeal reported that:
“On Monday morning Mrs. Cleveland will come in from Oakview, where she has been the last few days, to see the egg rolling on the White House grounds.
This will be a novel spectacle to her, and is one of the curious and distinctive of children’s customs in the world.
Egg rolling at Easter is common enongh, but why it was inaugurated children, far longer back than any body can remember, should this day take possession of one particular spot is as queer as anything in the mysterious regions of child myths and customs.
Nobody knows when it originated.
It is required of every President that besides giving up his private grounds on that day, he shall come out at least once that afternoon and show himself on the south portico.
No doubt ‘Frankie’ as the children call Mrs. Cleveland will be anxiously expected on Monday, and her arrival will be hailed even more than the President’s.”
In their second term from 1893 to 1897, the Clevelands continued their East Room receiving line for the children after the egg rolling contests.
While Eliza Johnson was the first known First Lady to preside over an egg-rolling contest and Lucy Hayes is dutifully credited with inviting the general public to attend, Frances Cleveland began the first real custom the event: the appearance of the White House animal companion of a President and First Lady, in this case a dog named Hector.
Grover and Frances Cleveland let Hector roam the lawn among the egg-rollers.
The dog seemed to be the star of the day, the kiddies freely giving him as many eggs as he could gobble up.
Until, as reporter Frank Carpenter noted, Hector had to find a corner and empty his stomach.