After its longest run of seeing seven First Ladies from Nellie Taft to Eleanor Roosevelt appear at the White House Easter Egg Roll, the event entered a dark period during which it was not only suspended but, even when revived, failed to capture enough interest from First Ladies to attend.
Despite their increasingly public roles in civic and political activities, the line of mid-century First Ladies Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon were never to appear publicly at the annual event.
Although the Easter Egg Roll was suspended for three years, from 1917 to 1920, due to World War I, food rationing and President Wilson’s stroke, it was a relatively brief hiatus compared to the longest one since the tradition was known to have begun.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, security forced the closing of the White House to the public shortly thereafter and there was no egg roll in 1942 on the property. One did occur in the city, but it was moved to the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building, a ironic choice given that it having been originally banned there in 1876 is what led to the White House South Lawn becoming the site of the public event.
The U.S. engagement in World War II of the remaining three Roosevelt years, and then the post-war national food conservation, followed by the entire renovation and re-construction of the White House during the six years of the Truman Administration meant it was suspended completely from 1943 to 1951.
In April of 1953, the newly-inaugurated President Dwight D. Eisenhower revived the tradition after its twelve-year hiatus. Emerging with him into a massive crowd, far larger than any previous seen, were his grandchildren David, Ann and Susan, along with their mother, daughter-in-law of the President, Barbara Eisenhower.
The grandchildren of President Eisenhower were the first to appear in the two decades since the early Franklin Roosevelt years when his granddaughter and grandson, then living in the White House temporarily. As a result of both the media frenzy and the public curiosity, young David Eisenhower was swamped by the crowds, his basket of candy and eggs overturned and he had to be whisked away from the engulfing public, along with his sisters.
While Mamie Eisenhower was referenced to that year as the official hostess who invited the public to again return to the White House South Lawn and is credited with wanting the event revived, she was no where to be seen that day. Photographs later photographed seemed to suggest she was there, but they were merely close-ups of her on another spring day on the South Portico.
And even though the White House Easter Egg Roll has returned to Washington, it was still be a very long stretch before another First Lady participated in the carnival-like event.
The following year of 1954, the Eisenhower family began their own personal tradition of spending the Easter weekend at “Mamie’s Cabin,” their home in Augusta, Georgia on the Augusta National Golf Course.
Not until the very last Easter Monday of the Eisenhower Administration did the President again return, for his second appearance. But Mamie Eisenhower was still no where to be seen, avoiding the crowds entirely.
And Mrs. Eisenhower’s three successors were also away for Easter.
Jacqueline Kennedy was with the President and their children at the Palm Beach, Florida estate of her in-laws, where she worked in the kitchen of the large old house, dying eggs in teacups and trying to prevent her young son John from spilling the color dyes about, much like any other young mother of the era.
Lady Bird Johnson was with the President and their children at their Stonewall, Texas “LBJ Ranch,”where her husband was insistent upon going as often as possible, to take a break from the constricted life in Washington.
During the Johnson years there were several massive chocolate candy figures donated for display on the South Lawn during the Easter Egg Roll, including a giant bunny.
The irresistible giant treat, however, was kept safely far behind a white-picket fence in the center of the lawn, warding off those youngsters unable to resist snapping a piece of candy from it and potentially having it tumble down.
Whether or not it was the LBJ giant chocolate bunnies which inspired her or not, she never said, but it was on Pat Nixon ‘s watch that the Easter Egg Roll finally got its official Easter Bunny.
This involved coaxing an adult White House staff member to dress in a bunny costume with a large, painted paper-mache head. The costumed figure began a regular feature for all the future annual events.
First Lady Pat Nixon tried to return the festivities to its traditional beginnings by having thousands of eggs dyed to ensure that children who had come to the event without any of their own could join in an “egg hunt.”
In 1974, the Nixons also suggested that formal egg races be organized to give the children a point of focus to the day, and that the first certificates be printed up for the children to take away as souvenirs making it official that they had rolled Easter eggs at the White House.
Otherwise, without a President or First Lady appearing, the event had become really just a chance to walk about in new Easter clothes. but it also revived the problem of the stench and mess of so many broken eggs on the lawn.
Pat Nixon was away with the President at either their Miami, Florida or San Clemente, California homes, or the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland.
On several occasions, however, their two daughters did appear separately to greet the crowds.
Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Tricia Nixon Cox did more than just wade through the crowds shaking hands and signing autographs, but also acting as unofficial mistresses of ceremonies at small stage shows set up on the South Lawn and featuring costumed characters from popular television shows of the era, like The New Zoo Review.
Having the two well-known First Daughters mix with the crowds and officiate at the White House Easter Egg Roll was at least the inkling of a new start to perhaps better organizing the event and encouraging more of the public to appear.
The lack of any enthusiasm on the part of recent Presidents and First Ladies about making an appearance at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll seemed to be resulting in dwindling numbers each year.
A 1965 Washington Post article admitted that, “At its best the annual egg rolling seems to have lost its zest in recent years and today’s rain made it far from a gala affair.”
Yet just like the early decades when the White House Easter Egg Roll seemed to be on the verge of distinction, all it took was one woman, one First Lady, who especially enjoyed the event to bring life back to it.
And in following that same inkling that had compelled Lucy Hayes, Ida McKinley, Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt to delight in the eggscades of the say, Betty Ford helped launch the White House Easter Egg Roll onto its strongest upswing in history.
It would soon reach the point where a First Lady seemed to not even consider missing that great and noisy day when tens of thousands of children screamed with glee all day, in their back yard.