Special Classifieds Feature

Buy Washington Post Inauguration newspapers, books, and more

Best and Worst From Past Balls

Thousands of people dressed in their finest attire flock to Washington for inaugurations, vying for the chance to attend an inaugural ball. The major event at any ball is typically the new president's appearance -- at the balls he chooses to visit -- but these events can become the talk of the town for other reasons.

A peek into the past recalls some balls to remember. Below you'll find a list of superlatives -- at the very least, these nuggets can serve as ballroom banter.

Coldest Day: The temperature was 4 degrees below zero the night of Ulysses S. Grant's second inauguration -- caged canaries froze to death. There was no heat in the temporary structure built for the celebration at Judiciary Square.

Refused to Have a Ball: Woodrow Wilson was a party spoiler -- when it came to his inauguration in 1913, at least. Event planners wanted to throw a ball at the Pension Building, but Wilson considered it too expensive, suggested that he thought the occasion was too solemn for a soiree, and requested that the inaugural committee cancel the plans. (Franklin Pierce canceled his ball in 1853 because of the death of his son.)

First President to Demand More Than One: Before Dwight D. Eisenhower, presidents attended just one inaugural ball. Citing high ticket demand, Eisenhower appeared at two. The number doubled again to four in 1957 after Eisenhower was re-elected.

The Bush Family
President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush looks over at their daughter Jenna, left, and Barbara at the Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball on Jan. 19, 2005, in Washington.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Honorable Mention: George W. Bush introduced the idea of a ball to honor U.S. troops. For 2005, the inaugural committee put together a "Commander in Chief Ball": Only men and women who had served or were signed up to serve could attend this ball, which was held at the National Building Museum.

Most Violent Coat Check Fight: The lines for the coat check aren't so friendly. The 1989 coat check calamity topped them all: Attendees, perhaps tired of waiting in line, stormed the cloak room of the Texas State Society's Tie and Boots ball in an event later called "The Bastille Day Coat Check," according to USA Today. Coming in a distant second: A woman lost an $8,000 mink coat in the shuffle in 1985.

First to Steal the Show: It was James Madison's night to shine in 1809, but reports in the next day's news were that his wife, Dolley, snagged the spotlight. Gowns like the one she wore are still worn today by dolls.

First Official Soirée: While George Washington attended an inaugural ball at the New York City Assembly Room, dancing to a minuet and two square dances, his celebration wasn't organized by any sort of committee. Madison's 1809 inauguration earns this title: 400 tickets were sold at $4 each for a ball held at Long's Hotel in Washington.

Most Surprising Venue: The U.S. Patent Office was picked for Abraham Lincoln in 1865. In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant moved his to the north corridor of the Treasury Department.

Least Lavish Locale: No one charged with organizing Zachary Taylor's 1849 ball could decide on a building large enough to accommodate the anticipated crowd, so the government built its own: a temporary wooden building in Judiciary Square. The idea was mimicked in 1857, when another temporary shelter was established there for James Buchanan's celebration, and again for Grant's frigid 1873 party.

The Balls That Weren't Balls: Jimmy Carter, not wanting to appear audacious, requested the balls of 1977 be referred to as "parties" in order to sound "less grand," wrote The Post's Sally Quinn.. To keep it casual, he also drove down the price of tickets.

The Kennedys
Then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy, at an inaugural ball in 1961 held at the Mayflower Hotel.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Swankiest Style: John F. Kennedy sported white tie and tails in 1961.

Biggest Partier: Bill Clinton attended a record 14 official balls in 1997, the most ever.

Most Memorable Munchies: Clinton wins this category too: Tom's Cookies of San Francisco contributed the Clinton Cookie (peanut butter and banana), Heavenly Hillary (brownie with nuts), Tipper Chipper (chocolate chip with M&M's) and Gore S'more (marshmallow and graham cracker) to his 1997 celebration.

For more fun facts about inaugurations past, check out inaugural.senate.gov, the source for much of this trivia. Have your own inaugural tales or memories? Share them in the comments below.
By Sarah Lovenheim

By Christopher Dean Hopkins  |  December 9, 2008; 2:50 PM ET  | Category:  Inaugural History
Previous: Alternative Transportation: Bike to the Inaugural! | Next: Montgomery County School Board Votes for Inaugural Holiday

Add Inauguration Watch to Your Site
Stay on top of the latest from Inauguration Watch! This easy-to-use widget is simple to add to your own Web site and will update every time there's a new installment of Inauguration Watch.
Get This Widget >>


It's probably too much to hope for that the Obama's inauguration will be white-tie. It is so elegant and he would look smashing in it.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | December 9, 2008 3:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid that I'm rather "down market" so it's likely that the only ball that I will get to will be a cheese-ball.

But I trust that LittleRed1 knows that Pres.-Elect Obama HAS ordered a new tuxedo, union-made.

Posted by: edallan | December 9, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Reporters love to tear people apart for the smallest mistakes - so I'm amused to read that Grant had one of the "least lavish" balls in 1973. I guess Nixon was confused that night!

Posted by: mwcob | December 9, 2008 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, fixed.

Posted by: Christopher Dean Hopkins | December 9, 2008 4:12 PM | Report abuse

With the economy in such bad shape how can they party? What a joke. Check out gloomboom.com.

Posted by: GloomBoomDotcom | December 9, 2008 7:11 PM | Report abuse

I think that one night of partying won't affect the economy either way, GrinchBoomDotcom.

I do wish the author had chosen another source to show off Dolley Madison's style - neither the dress they linked to nor the book it was made to accompany are anywhere near accurate. Why not link to the White House bio of Dolley and the lovely portrait there?

Posted by: caledoncrow | December 11, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company