Inaugural Ball History

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Having a Ball at the Inauguration
Behind the scenes of the presidential party

by David Johnson

Governmental plans and political agendas are not the only things that change with presidential administrations. The president and the first family also set Washington, DC, style, which is often evident within hours after the president has taken his oath. Inaugural balls reflect the times in which they occur.

A Long Tradition

The first inaugural ball in Washington, DC, was held on March 4, 1809, on behalf of James Madison, the fourth president. (The presidential inauguration was held in March until 1933, when the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution moved it to January.)

Madison's inaugural ball was modest by today's standards, but it was elegant for the time. It was held at Long's Hotel on Capitol Hill. Dancing started at 7 p.m. The U.S. Marine Band, which provided the music, has become a traditional feature at inaugurations.

Floats in Parade

Perhaps as an indication that the new country was growing up, inaugural ceremonies gradually became more elaborate. In 1837, Martin Van Buren's inauguration was celebrated with two balls. It was also the first inaugural parade to contain floats.

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Oysters Galore

The 1853 inaugural ball for Franklin Pierce was cancelled because his son had been killed in a railroad accident two months earlier.

Pierce's successor, James Buchanan, celebrated with a lavish party in 1857. It was held in a building on Judiciary Square built for the occasion for a staggering $15,000. The two rooms, one for dancing and one for eating, featured red, white, and blue walls and a white ceiling sprinkled with gold stars. Six thousand guests drank $3,000 worth of wine and devoured 400 gallons of oysters, 60 saddles of mutton, four saddles of venison, 125 tongues, 75 hams, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 500 quarts of jellies, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, and a four-foot high cake.

Frozen Trumpets

The weather was so cold during the second inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant that the valves on the band's musical instruments froze during the ball, and guests danced with their coats on.

Electric Light Debuts

An electric lamp hanging over the doorway to the 1881 inaugural ball of James A. Garfield, held at the Smithsonian Institution, was a novelty and intrigued the guests. John Philip Sousa conducted the U.S. Marine Band, which was one of two bands to entertain at the ball.

Clinton Inaugural Gala 1997
W.J.Clinton, Hillary, Tipper, and Al Gore on stage at the 1997 Inaugural Gala
More and More Balls

As time went on, the balls became larger and increasingly elaborate. Air travel has made it easier for more people to attend.

To accommodate all the guests, the number of balls has proliferated. Dwight Eisenhower had four balls, John Kennedy had five, Richard Nixon six, and Jimmy Carter, seven.

Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981 was probably the sweetest, as 40 million jellybeans were eaten at the eight inaugural balls, which were televised by cable TV to inaugural parties around the nation. Reagan had begun nibbling his signature jellybeans in the 1960s when he quit smoking.

George H. W. Bush celebrated with nine balls, while Bill Clinton managed to attend each of the 14 balls held in his honor, if only briefly.

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