This article is adapted from a response to a public inquiry about holiday dance parties hosted by First Ladies
Along with the traditional forms of entertainment and celebrations overseen and arranged by First Ladies during the holiday season, at the turn of the last century several of them hosted dance parties for their young adult children and relatives in the days between Christmas and New Year’s, giving the week an event with a bit of extra luster.
Abigail Adams hosted the first such party, inviting the few children of officials living in the new capital city of Washington in 1800 during her two months residency in what was then the new presidential mansion.
Living with her was her toddler granddaughter Suzanna and the First Lady wanted to have the child enjoy the holiday season, given that her own father was then terminally ill with alcoholism.
Southern presidential families were more accustomed to celebrating the holiday season with gusto in the 19th century than were New Englanders. The large and hospitable Tyler family of Virginia, with both young and adult children and several grandchildren brought with them the festive proclivities of the plantation slave-owner class.
Although details of their Christmastime celebrating in 1842 is scant, we do know that the by-then widowed President and his First Lady, daughter-in-law Priscilla, entertained Firstmarked by holiday parties for all of them, as well as those of family friends.
As overseen by the two First Ladies of Zachary Taylor’s administration, his wife Peggy and daughter Betty, four grandchildren, and a half-dozen young nieces and nephews gathered together for seemingly perpetual holiday fun in the White House, the record showing a large number of their kinfolk visiting from Kentucky, Virginia and Louisiana.
Two Tennessean First Ladies Emily Donelson, hostess for her uncle Andrew Jackson, and Martha Patterson, the public hostess for her father Andrew Johnson, arranged large and formal Christmas parties for the large number of small grandchildren composing their White House families.
Among these parties, the ones which captured the public imagination were the debuts into the social scene of several presidential daughters. The “coming out party” as it is sometimes called, was a rite of passage for young women from wealthy and influential families.
Usually a formal dancing party, or “cotillion” with a late supper, the event served as the initial social event at which they appeared and this “social debut” served as a public signal that the women were now able to attend social events on their own.
Typically wearing formal gowns of white to suggest the purity of their youth, and being “presented” in a formal lineup with other young women of the social elite class, the debutante ball took place at different times of the year between the autumn and spring.
In Washington, where even the calendar of social events revolved around the times that Congress was in session and not in recess, it usually took place in the holiday season.
The first First Lady to arrange such an event for her daughter during the holiday season was Julia Grant.
Many were startled that she permitted her daughter Nellie Grant to “come out” at the age of only sixteen in December of 1873. The event, however, was staged outside of the White House.
The first Christmas dance hosted by a First Lady occurred in 1898, when Ida McKinley organized a party for a house full of her and the President’s young nieces and nephews. Refreshments were served in the State Dining Room but the music and dancing was in the Blue Room.
Perhaps the most famous party hosted by a First Lady at the White House for a presidential child was the December 1902 debut party staged by Edith Roosevelt for her unpredictable stepdaughter Alice. In attendance at the event was her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Alice was not too pleased with the First Lady’s decision not to serve champagne, but rather a punch, and limit the hours of dancing. In later years, she remarked that her holiday party at the White House was “dreadful.” The public at the time had no idea of this. In fact, newspapers reporting on her holiday debut described her this way:
“She can cow fence, dance, ride and is expert In many exercises which give a good setup and encourage strong vitality. Miss Roosevelt is rather tall, slight in build, has dark eyes and light brown hair. Her face is full of sweetness and character, with an aim. intelligent expression. Best of all. she looks wholesome and happy and like an ideal American girl.”
In one of the last gatherings of the Theodore Roosevelt extended family, the First Lady hosted a second debutante party, this time for her daughter Ethel on December 28, 1908, about two and a half months before the end of the Administration.
Newspapers covering the anticipation of the event reported that Ethel Roosevelt showed a degree of disinterest in the social life ahead that her mother had planned for her, preferring instead the company of her dog Ace and horse Montauk.
Very much a tomboy and seemingly one of the gang of boys that included her brothers and their friends. She was described as a bit of a cut-up, known for giving a playful slap on the back of her brothers.
Edith Roosevelt did not ignore her four boys, however.
Days before Christmas in 1903, Ted, Kermit, Archie and Quentin along with some five-hundred of their friends and other children were invited to a “winter festival” with fake snow, a tall ice cream Santa Claus, dancing and supper.
Just two years later, Edith Roosevelt’s successor Nellie Taft hosted a third successive White House debut party during the holiday season, for her daughter Helene (as her given name “Helen” was pronounced by her family and friends). In contrast to the Roosevelt daughters, the Taft holiday party took place in the afternoon, from five to seven.
The First Lady was as prominent a figure at the party as her daughter, the two of them standing together at the south end of the East Room, to welcome two-thousand five-hundred guests.
Those invited to attend first met Mrs. Taft, dressed in ” delft blue chiffon, over white satin and trimmed in sable bands,” who then introduced guests to her daughter. At one point the President stood on the other side of Helene to join his wife and daughter.
There were two elements at the holiday party that proved visually stunning.
In all the rooms of the state floor were endless bowers of pink roses offering a fresh tone to the green evergreen touches of the holiday season.
And then there was “Miss Helene” herself.
Active in progressive movement reforms intended to help working-class young women and academic in her interests, she decided to break from the tradition of debutantes wearing white dresses.
Instead, she wore a gown of rose-colored satin with “a long pointed tunic over a satin underdress,” and holding a bouquet of pink roses. She wore her hair in a “slightly waved pompadour, and a coil.”
Between the flowers and the First Daughter’s gown, a new color of “Helen Pink” was declared by local stores carrying women’s dresses in the color, much as had “Alice Blue” been made a popular color in honor of Alice Roosevelt’s favorite color.
In 1923, after the numerous holiday activities and private family celebration of Christmas Day, Grace Coolidge hosted a holiday dance for her two sons, John and Calvin, Jr. who were both home from the same Pennsylvania boarding school.
A decade later, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a similar event for her annual dances for her two youngest sons, John a boarding school student at Groton, and Franklin, Jr. a freshman at Harvard University.
Six months after “Frank” married heiress Ethel Dupont in June of 1937, the couple were given permission by the First Lady to use the White House to host a Christmas dance party for their contemporaries and did so again two years later.
There were no sedate waltzes, however, but rather the exciting sound of the most popular music of the era, “swing,” and the First Lady was reportedly in attendance briefly.
And the First Lady, despite all of her work on behalf of others, be it policy negotiating behind the scenes or public acts of benevolence, made sure to put time aside and plan what would be the final of the four White House holiday debutante parties.
It took place in December of 1938 and was held in honor of her niece and namesake, Miss Eleanor Roosevelt.
According to an article on the White House Historical Association’s website, the First Lady and her brother, Hall, studied the faces of the dozens of young Roosevelt cousins who attended, trying to determine who they were by their potential resemblance to their parents.
Finally, while Mrs. Roosevelt gave the adult, young adult and students in the generation behind her, she didn’t forget the youngest Roosevelts; in the early years of the administration, she hosted Christmas parties for her growing brood of grandchildren.