An Eggstravaganza Tradition (Part I)
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
Rolling eggs on the Monday after Easter has long been a tradition observed by many Washington families, including the President of the United States. Origins of informal egg-rolling parties at the White House were primarily family oriented, dating back to Abraham Lincoln, a private event hosted by his son Tad.
Public egg-rolling activities and all day picnics in Washington were held NOT at the White House, but at the Capitol as early as 1872. Press accounts showed children rolling eggs and themselves down the grassy slopes of the congressional grounds. Apparently, the children caused such a ruckus that in 1876 Congress passed the Turf Protection Law prohibiting the area from being used as a playground. The bill was signed into law by President Grant. In 1877, the event was rained out and the following year, the newspaper informed the children they could not play on the Capitol grounds.
Learning of their plight, President Rutherford B. Hayes came to the rescue. The President opened the gates to the South Lawn of the White House and invited all children who wanted to roll eggs to his end of Pennsylvania Avenue. On April 22, 1878, the Easter Monday Egg Roll became an official White House event.
Over the years, the White House Easter Egg Roll has evolved with each First Family adding their own personal touch. Grover Cleveland invited egg-rollers into the East Room for indoor receptions. Benjamin Harrison requested “The President’s Own” Marine Band, then directed by John Phillip Sousa play lively music at the event, a musical tradition that continues to this day.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, children played such games as "Egg Picking," "Egg Ball," "Toss and Catch, " and "Egg Croquet." Consequently, the smell of real broken eggs permeated the air for miles. Yet children and adults looked forward to the event all year long. William McKinley welcomed as many as 50,000 people to the popular Egg Roll.
During the Roosevelt administration, adults were banned from the Egg Roll unless accompanied by a child . This led to “borrowing” children for entry. Opportunistic children gladly obliged for a small fee.
During WWI, Woodrow Wilson moved the Egg Roll to the Washington Monument, for safety reasons. The first time in 40 years, public egg rolling was not allowed on the South Lawn. From 1918-1920, the Egg Roll was cancelled to conserve eggs for the war effort- as no item of food was to be destroyed. A flock of sheep grazed on the grass to save on gasoline and manpower.
Warren Harding resumed the tradition with the help of his dog, Laddie Boy. First Lady Grace Coolidge brought her pet raccoon to the Egg Roll. Lou Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover, invited Girls Scouts to perform folk and maypole dances to complement the egg-rolling but, perhaps because of the combination of stomping feet and boiled eggs, the practices were not continued for long.
At her first Egg Roll in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt greeted visitors and listeners alike for the first time over the radio, on a nationwide hookup. In 1937, the Egg Roll was attended by a record number of 53,180 people, compared to 1940 when only 5480 showed up on that very cold Easter Monday.
When America entered WWII, the Egg Roll was moved back to the Capitol for the first time in 64 years. Wartime measures cancelled the event from 1943-45. Harry Truman was the only president in the 20th century to not host the Egg Roll due to the War and reconstruction of the White House.
After a 12 year hiatus, President and Mrs. Eisenhower revived the tradition for a generation of children who had never experienced this time honored tradition. For the next 16 years, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and their First Ladies extended their Easter holiday and did not attend the White House Easter Egg Roll. Their plans for the Egg Roll were carried out by the White House Staff.