The Evolution of the Inaugural Ball

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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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January 6, 2009 - 2:47am
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