History of Inaugural Balls – Presidential Parties Date Back to George Washington

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There is a long tradition of lavish celebrations marking the inauguration of presidents.

Sponsors held a ball in George Washington’s honor a week after he took the oath of office in New York City and became the nation’s first president in May 1789.

Tickets to the first “official” inaugural ball, which marked the 1809 swearing-in of President James Madison, cost $4, according to a history compiled by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Compare that to the $5,000 price of admission for one of the balls being planned to commemorate Barack Obama’s upcoming inauguration.

Balls in the 1800s

Not unlike today, inaugural balls were considered a highlight of Washington D.C.’s social scene throughout the 1800s.

Two balls were held for President Andrew Jackson in 1833 and President William Henry Harrison went to each of his three inaugural balls in 1841. A temporary wooden structure was built in the city’s Judiciary Square in 1849 for one of President’s Zachary Taylor’s inaugural balls. The ball following President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 was held at the federal Patient Office, marking the first time that a government building hosted this event.

Grant’s Back-to-Back Disasters

President Ulysses S. Grant’s two inaugurations featured balls that fell far short of expectations. His 1869 ball at the Treasury Building was overcrowded and guests wound up fighting over food. Four years later Grant’s second inaugural ball was held in another temporary building in Judiciary Square. The temperature plunged to minus 4 degrees, causing caged canaries at the party to freeze to death while guests danced in overcoats.

Canceled Balls

In 1853 President Franklin Pierce, who was mourning the recent loss of his son, asked that the inaugural ball be canceled. Sixty years later, President Woodrow Wilson called for the cancellation of his ball because he felt the event was too expensive and unnecessary. In 1921 President Warren G. Harding did away with both his inaugural ball and parade for similar reasons. President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to work through the night instead of attending his first inaugural ball in 1933 and he canceled the next three celebrations because of the Depression and World War II.

Reviving the Party

The next inaugural ball wasn’t held until the beginning of President Harry Truman’s second term in 1949. Since then the number of presidential parties has mushroomed.

Organizers put on two balls for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration, which grew to four balls to herald his second term. President John F. Kennedy attended five inaugural balls in 1961. By the time that President Ronald Reagan took office in 1991, a total of nine inaugural balls were held.

Clinton Holds Record

President William Jefferson Clinton began his second term by attending an all-time high of 14 inaugural balls in 1997. The number of parties diminished slightly during George W. Bush’s presidency. He attended eight inaugural balls in 2001 and nine official celebrations in 2005.