Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Brief History Of White House Easter Egg Rolls

Highlights from 133 years of the annual event, from the First Raccoon to the First Autographed Eggs to the First Cybercast...
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will welcome more than 30,000 people to the South Lawn for Monday's 2011 White House Easter Egg Roll, which has the theme "Get Up and Go!" to reflect Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign. The Easter Egg Roll is a tradition dating back to 1878 and President Rutherford B. Hayes, but there are records of informal egg rolling events as early as President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, which took place on the grounds of the US Capitol. Below, a rapid-fire history of the tradition, with details taken from White House archives. (Above: Kids during a Roll in the 1920s)

What began more than a century ago as a "play day" on the park-like grounds of the White House is now a themed day-long event featuring the President and First Lady personally greeting guests, performances from A-list celebrities and musical acts, and corporate sponsors like Whole Foods, PBS, Disney, and Nickelodeon. Each Obama Roll has focused on health and fitness; a post about the 2010 Easter Egg Roll, which featured an impressive slate of cooking and gardening activities, IS HERE. (Above: The First Family and the Easter Bunny welcome guests in from the Truman Balcony in 2010)

>The Talent Line-up for 2011 performances IS HERE. Easter Egg Roll Facts ARE HERE. The Poster Contest winners ARE HERE. The Commemorative Egg design IS HERE.

This year, there will be a livestream of performances so people who didn't get tickets in the online lottery (an Obama innovation, now in its third year) can follow along. The first White House "cybercast" of an Easter Egg Roll on the internet was in 1998, courtesy of President Bill Clinton. Which makes sense, since Vice President Al Gore "invented" the internet. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made the first radio broadcast from an Easter Egg Roll in 1933.

How did President Hayes start the White House tradition?
After the Civil War, egg rolling often took place on the Capitol building’s grounds. But by 1876, Congressmen reportedly grew tired of the torn up grounds and rowdy crowds, and passed a law prohibiting the use of the Capitol Grounds as a play area. (Above: Guests during the 1898 Roll)

On Easter day in 1878, when the ban on egg rolling at the Capitol went into effect, legend has it that President Hayes saw tearful children, while riding by the Capitol Grounds in his carriage. He invited them to play on the White House lawn. In earlier, friendly decades, the White House lawn was not fenced, and locals frequently picniced there. Nowadays, the security is tight, with armed Secret Service Agents on duty 24-hours a day--even at the Roll, of course.

By 1899, the White House Easter Egg Roll had become quite popular, with over 8,000 people in attendance, and hawkers vending their wares on the South Lawn. The event has been held at the White House every year except during World War I, World War II and the Truman Renovation of the White House, when it was moved to other Washington locations or canceled.

The most famous event of modern Easter Egg Rolls, the egg-rolling race, was introduced with spoons borrowed from the White House kitchen in 1974. Egg hunt "pits" were introduced in 1981, so kids could dig for eggs that held the president's autograph. Kids at this year's roll will be able to decorate eggs, too.

First Dogs...and a First Raccoon
First Dogs were often brought by their presidential owners to visit with the excited kids hunting for eggs, but only one First Lady has A) Had a pet raccoon and B) Brought her to an Easter Egg Roll. In 1927, First Lady Grace Coolidge, who was very popular and regarded as a fashion icon equivalent to Mrs. Obama, brought her pet raccoon, Rebecca, to the Roll (above). It caused mad excitement, according to contemporary accounts.

And the fetching duo made international headlines, according to the National Archives. Last year, Mrs. Obama had First Dog Bo with her (on leash) as she opened the festivities. The First Lady is always the official host for the Easter Egg Roll.

It's Not A "Roll" until the Easter Bunny Shows...
President Richard Nixon
and First Lady Pat Nixon were the first to include the White House Easter Bunny in the festivities. Nowadays, the event cannot officially be called the "White House Easter Egg Roll" until the opening ceremony, when the Easter Bunny makes an appearance, according to the White House

At this year's Roll, guests will be admitted in timed groups, and they'll have two hours to romp on the South Lawn. The first round of guests will be let in at 7:30 AM, and the Easter Bunny will make a formal appearance on the Truman Balcony, at about 10:00 AM, when the President and First Lady welcome guests.

President Ronald Reagan, Autographer in Chief
This year's kid visitors will each receive a commemorative wood egg that has the stamped autographs of the President and Mrs. Obama.

Autographing eggs is a tradition that was started by America's first Hollywood president, President Ronald Reagan, who innovated the tradition of signing the real dyed hard-boiled eggs that were hidden for children to find in the South Lawn Egg Hunt. (Above: As First Lady Nancy Reagan looks on, President Regan autographs an egg at the April 4, 1983 Roll)

President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush were the first to stamp the autographs of the President and First Lady on the commemorative wood eggs. The Obama innovation for the eggs: They're made using using vegetable oil-based ink and wood from "sustainably managed forests," and and packaged in eco-friendly paper. 19,000 real hard-boiled eggs will be used at this year's Roll.

*Photos from Presidential Archives