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The Evolution of the Inaugural Ball

On January 20th, a new president will take office in Washington, DC. There will be a big parade, a swearing-in ceremony, and boxes moving in and out of the White House. Then the balls begin at night. Inaugural balls were once the most elegant and sophisticated affairs in the nation, although they were joyous occasions, too. Now they are a once-in-a-lifetime event, because so many people who attend say they won't ever do that again!

For the inauguration of George Washington in 1789, the custom of the inaugural ball hadn't yet been established. A fancy dress ball was held in New York a week after he was sworn in. Washington particularly enjoyed dancing the minuet. A good time was had by all, and subsequent presidents (or First Ladies) strove to match the elegance of the celebration. Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, was the first president's wife to attend inauguration ceremonies, and the first First Lady to host an official inaugural ball, in 1809. Tickets for the event cost $4, equivalent to $50 today. Madison had experience in this area, as she had played White House hostess for president Jefferson on several social occasions. In fact, Madison was the first woman to be referred to as the First Lady.

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Ulysses S. Grant's inaugural ball in 1869 became a free-for-all as too many guests competed for too little food until a fight broke out! Grant's 1873 ball didn't fare even that well. A temporary building was constructed to accommodate the anticipated crowd, and temperature outside plunged to four degrees below zero. The food froze, the champagne was slushy, and worst of all, 100 canaries brought in to sing froze to death!

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The elegance of the inaugural ball has given way to the massive crowds and budgetary restraints of modern times. The ball held when Grover Cleveland was inaugurated in 1893 was the epitome of elegance.

A 120-piece orchestra led by John Philip Sousa played for the guests, who could pause from dancing to nibble on 60,000 oysters, 10,000 chicken croquettes, 150 gallons of lobster salad and 1,300 quarts of ice cream, among other things.

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Things have toned down a lot since then. Space was at a premium at Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inaugural balls. "Never have so many paid so much to dance so little," Johnson quipped. In 1977, Jimmy Carter insisted on scaling back the luxury and called the balls "parties" instead of balls. At Bill Clinton's 1997 inaugural balls, water cost $2 and sandwiches cost $5.50.

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In modern times, checking coats has become so much of a problem at inaugural balls that the coat-check fiasco is almost a tradition in itself. In 1985, people were trying to claim their coats and furs days after the inaugural balls were over. A 1989 ball saw a riot develop when people couldn't retrieve their coats. In 1997, police were called in to control irate crowds who had trouble claiming their coats. The crowds and experiences of previous balls inspire insiders to publish "survival guides" for those attending this year. Their advice? Wear flat shoes, eat before you go, and leave your coat in the car.

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Some presidential inaugurations had no balls. In 1853 Franklin Pierce requested that the ball be canceled as he was grieving the death of his son. Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Warren G. Harding in 1921 had no balls because they thought the custom was too extravagant. Roosevelt worked through the night during his first inauguration, and canceled celebrations for his next three because of World War II. Official balls returned with Harry Truman in 1949. Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration saw two balls to accommodate crowds, and his second inauguration had four. The number of official balls rose to fourteen for Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997, but fell for subsequent presidents. There will be ten official balls for Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20th.

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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