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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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

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