Coming along the presidential timeline between the two Cleveland Administrations, the Benjamin Harrison Administration marked the first known time that an entire First Family appeared at the White House Easter Egg Roll.
The first Easter Egg Roll of that Administration, in 1889, was a four-generation affair which included the First Lady’s elderly father, her niece who worked as her social secretary, the President and his wife Caroline, their two adult children Mary and Russell, son-in-law and daughter-in-law, three little grandchildren.
One photograph showed the entire clan from the back, standing on the South Portico balcony overlooking the kiddies and their bright eggs, the President and his father-in-law holding up two of the little children.
By the turn-of-the-century, the portico balcony was where the children on the lawn could expect to catch a fleeting glimpse of the First Ladies, Presidents and their families, waving to them below, somewhat like an American royal family on a balcony acknowledging the lilliputian citizenry.
There seemed, however, to be a reluctance to let the little children who belonged to First Families go out among the crowds of public children.
Despite her enjoyment in watching the Easter Egg Roll during her first term as First Lady, for example, during her second term, from 1893 to 1897, Frances Cleveland protectively kept her three little daughters from public view during the festivities, keeping them instead at the private home the family lived in, while using the White House for official functions.
The two daughters of William McKinley and Ida McKinley had died nearly a quarter of a century before they got to the White House; “Little Ida” was only three months old and Katie McKinley had been three and a half. From that time forward, the First Lady especially loved being surrounded by little girls about that age and she spoke often of her two “lost girls,” to all who would listen, as if their spirits were always near her.
It made the gift of a simple sugar egg with an inner diorama depicting Katie and Little Ida as young girls on the lawn where the crowds of children the most meaningful and precious one of all given to Mrs. McKinley. She never failed to watch the activity, either from an open bedroom window upstairs or the portico.
In 1900, she was especially delighted that her husband’s niece Ida Morse had come to visit them from San Francisco and brought her little daughter Marjorie Morse along to enjoy the Easter Egg Roll.
With the exuberant clan of four boys and two girls who composed the children of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt, public expectations were high that they would all be romping with the general public on the lawn.
“The Roosevelt youngsters will be in their glory today s leaders in the annual egg-rolling contest in the back lot of the White House,” the Omaha Daily Bee promised in its March 31, 1902 news story.
While the President continued to host a reception for the children, his own remained separated from the masses, strictly removed on the portico instead. One senses this was an edict from Edith Roosevelt who was not known to have publicly appeared at the event during her five years in the White House. She decidedly did not approve of the Easter Egg Roll, believing it to be a “needless” wreck of the well-groomed South Lawn.
In 1909, there were reports of Nellie Taft joining her husband in receiving a delegation at an afternoon reception on Easter Monday but nothing about the egg roll. The following year was simply a notice stating that the President had “given consent” for the annual event.
By 1912, however, there were newspaper reports of how delighted Nellie Taft was to be able to go out on the lawn among the crowds and remain virtually unnoticed.
This is the first report of a First Lady leaving the portico post from above and joining the public.
That same year her daughter Helene Taft, a college student, also appeared on the steps of the South Portico with the family dog, a caramel-colored poodle named Caro.
Ellen Wilson got to enjoy one Easter Egg Rolls at the White House, in 1913. The following year, she and the President spent the holiday weekend in Hot Springs, Virginia where the First Lady was already ailing from the the kidney disease which would kill her just months later.
She is the first to be photographed on her own, overseeing the festivities from the White House South Portico balcony. Margaret Wilson, acting as First Lady for her widowed father, appeared at the 1915 event.
By the following Easter Monday, President Wilson had remarried and his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson presided over the 1916 event, as reported in newspapers. It would prove to be her only one.
With U.S. entry into World War I coming on April 6, just eighteen days before Easter Monday in 1917, the event was cancelled and remained inactive through 1918, 1919 and 1920, following the end of the war and President Wilson’s stroke.
The Roaring Twenties began a long period of First Ladies actively participating in the White House Easter Egg Roll, two notably making a point of leaving the higher officials and their young children who now composed the elite circle invited to view the event from the South Portico balcony and joining the crowds of children on the lawn.
Just a month after becoming First Lady in 1921, Florence Harding gleefully revived the custom, along with the tradition of showcasing the presidential pet, in this case Laddie Boy the Airedale dog, as the real star member of a First Family who delighted the children.
While both the President and First Lady waved to the kiddies from the South Portico, Florence Harding permitted the White House dog-keeper Arthur Jackson to take Laddie Boy out on the lawn among the children.
Grace Coolidge was beaming a broad smile in all of the images snapped of her during the five Easter Monday parties she hosted as First Lady, from 1924 to 1928. This would appear to give her the record as the first First Lady to attend all of the annual egg-rolling events held during her tenure as First Lady.
Mrs. Coolidge also earns another White House Easter Egg Roll footnote by becoming the first to fully engage with the children of the general public by going down among the crowds with her different pets each year (Mrs. Taft had slipped into the crowds without being recognized, delighting in her anonymity rather than making herself known).
Perhaps one of the most popular photographic series ever taken of a First Lady is the one depicting Grace Coolidge holding her famous pet raccoon Rebecca at one of the annual Easter Egg-Roll parties and bringing the animal into the crowds for the children to pet. Another year she brought one of the family cats out with her, and more frequently it was her famous white collie Rob Roy alone with accompanied by other family dogs.
By never missing any Easter Egg Roll and mixing it up with the crowds, Grace Coolidge was a key figure in helping to establish the event in the public mind as one where they could expect to see, if not meet a First Lady.
In 1918, when she was working in partnership with her husband as President Wilson’s World War I Food Administrator, Lou Hoover had led a national crusade to “Go Eggless for Easter,” and save an estimated 60 million eggs nationwide for consumption rather than sport.
As First Lady, Lou Hoover still seemed a bit concerned about the “egg problem,” meaning the mess and smell that hundreds of broken hard-boiled eggs on the South Lawn would cause. She decided to provide the first sort of organized activities for children to watch, intending to distract them from needing to roll – and break – too many eggs.
One of the events she provided was folk dancing, including children performing a traditional maypole ritual with colored ribbons winding around a pole to welcome the spring season.
In 1931, Mrs. Hoover even permitted her two grandchildren Peggy and Peter, then in residence with her and the President, to deliver welcoming remarks on a live radio broadcast from the event bandstand.
Despite all of her commitments to serious endeavors related to public welfare and policy and her constant traveling around the nation, nothing seemed to bring greater pleasure to Eleanor Roosevelt than making sure she appeared at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and diving into the crowds, meeting as many children and their adult companions as she could.
In 1933, her first year, Eleanor Roosevelt appeared at the White House Easter Egg Roll along with her dog Meg, daughter Anna Dall and grandchildren Sisty and Buzzy.
The event even inspired the First Daughter to write a children’s book called Scamper: The White House Bunny.
Another year, Mrs. Roosevelt had a magician performing tricks with her grandchildren as they were popularly known, on the steps of the South Portico, for all the crowd to watch.
During a later Easter Egg Roll event, she broadcasted a live radio greetings to the nation.
Although this First Lady decided to scale back the traditional White House entertaining schedule, feeling it was unseemly during the Great Depression when so many American families were barely surviving, she refused to cut the Easter Egg Roll.
And, as the Third Reich began its march across Europe, leading to thousands of refugees seeking asylum in the United States and other free nations, Mrs. Roosevelt not only showed her compassion but scored a political point across the world by inviting a group of European refugee children as her personal guests to the 1940 and 1941 Easter Egg Rolls at the Roosevelt White House.
The First Lady made clear her belief that the annual event was likely the one great pleasure of the year for so many poor children in Washington.
As a friend of hers stated, “Of course, she loves children. She had so many of them. And they are all over the world.”