First Ladies & The White House Easter Egg Roll: Who Went & Who Didn’t, 1801-1861 (Part 1)

 

The South Lawn of the White House photographed during the Polk Administration some twenty years before the first authenticated Easter Egg Roll event took place there.

The South Lawn of the White House photographed during the Polk Administration some twenty years before the first authenticated Easter Egg Roll event took place there.

On April 21, 2014 the White House South Lawn will again be the site for a nearly unbroken century-and-a-half annual tradition, a true last vestige of a democracy making its leader and his family accessible to the citizens – even though the primary demographic of the event are not yet of voting age.

Legend alone is what continues to give Dolley Madison credit for stasrting the White House Easter Egg-Roll. (Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

Legend alone is what continues to give Dolley Madison credit for stasrting the White House Easter Egg-Roll. (Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

Legends, particularly those related to the White House, Presidents and First Ladies die hard.

One of the most persistent and popular of White House legends is that Dolley Madison began the Easter Egg Roll, when her son Payne Todd suggested she initiate this festivity for children of the capital city, and that it had been a custom practiced among ancient Egyptians at the base of the pyramids.

Correspondence among the Madison presidential family, however, neither reports nor even suggests such an event occurring on or near Easter Sunday during the six such holidays they occupied the White House, April 2,1809 or April 22, 1810 or April 14, 1811 or March 29, 1812 or April 18 1813 or April 10,1814.

The myth of Dolley Madison starting the Easter Egg-Roll further credits it as an idea suggested by her otherwise self-involved son Payne Todd. (NY Historical Society)

The myth of Dolley Madison starting the Easter Egg-Roll further credits it as an idea suggested by her otherwise self-involved son Payne Todd. (NY Historical Society)

Since the executive mansion was burned by the British during the War of 1812, it was inhabitable for the last two years of the Madison Administration. Easter Egg Roll historian C.L. Arbelbide also speculates that no such festivity was held at the U.S. Capitol Building property, since it was also the site of the horrifying slave trade.

The story of Dolley Madison beginning the Easter Egg Roll seems to have been invented in the Roaring Twenties by one of the several enterprising young women society reporters who regularly covered White House social events and seemed to always be looking for just the right “new story” to give her coverage a slight edge over the competition.

Despite all the young grandchildren, nieces and nephews who visited the Taylor White House, there is no evidence that youthful Betty Taylor Bliss, who assumed the role of public White House hostess while her mother Peggy oversaw private entertaining, ever hosted an Egg-Roll for them during the family's Easter there, in 1849 and 1850. (cyberstamps.com)

Despite all the young relatives visiting the Taylor White House, public hostess Betty Taylor Bliss never held an Egg-Roll for them during the family’s Easter there, in 1849 and 1850. (cyberstamps.com)

One such reporter even went by the nome de plume of “Dolly Madison,” a name which, by the 1920s, had less to do with the real historical figure than a mythic one intended to symbolize the convivial hospitable hostess.

Her successors Elizabeth Monroe, Louisa Adams, Emily Donelson, Sarah Jackson, the four Tyler family women who served as First Ladies, Sarah Polk, Peggy Taylor and Betty Bliss all presided over presidential households which had a plurality of young children, be they grandchildren, nieces, nephews or cousins.

While the public record of social life in these pre-Civil War decades is sparse, not even family lore suggests any of these women organized, hosted, encouraged or attended anything resembling a children’s lawn party or egg-rolling games on Easter Monday.

President Tyler and former First Lady Dolley Madison attending the costume party held for his granddaughter Mary's birthday, a unique event arranged by his daughter-in-law and acting First Lady Priscilla Tyler. (LC)

President Tyler and former First Lady Dolley Madison attending the costume party held for his granddaughter Mary’s birthday, a unique event arranged by his daughter-in-law and acting First Lady Priscilla Tyler. (LC)

There were any number of recorded children’s parties during these years.

During the Jackson Administration, for example, there were Christmas parties held specifically for his many young nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

The Tyler family held a costume party in honor of presidential granddaughter Mary Fairlee Tyler, which even the former First Lady Dolley Madison attended.

Documentation suggests that it was the son of a famous First Lady other than Dolley Madison, however, who first prompted the annual event – and that she was reportedly no where to be seen at it.

in First Ladies and the White House Easter Egg-Roll

First Ladies and the White House Easter Egg-Roll

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