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Inaugural Balls Are a Long, Varied American Tradition

27 December 2012
Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson dancing (AP Images)

President Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson dance at one of the five inaugural balls in 1965.

Washington — After President Obama’s public swearing-in for his second term on January 21 and his inaugural address and a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, activities conclude with evening inaugural balls.

For the 2013 inauguration, President Obama, citing the state of the economy, has asked for only two official inaugural balls, down from 10 after his 2009 inauguration. One of the 2013 balls will be for the president’s invited guests, with some tickets for the public. The other will be for military families.

The official inaugural balls are usually by invitation only and the president, vice president and their families make an appearance at most of them. Many unofficial balls — nearly a dozen had been scheduled for the 2013 inauguration as of December 27 — are sponsored by local and national organizations and are open to the public.

The history of inaugural balls is long, and the venues and scope of the festivities have varied, often according to the wishes of the man being sworn in.

On May 7, 1789, one week after the inauguration of George Washington in New York City, sponsors held a ball to honor the new president. It was not until 1809, however, after the inauguration of James Madison at the Capitol in Washington, that the tradition of the inaugural ball began. That night, first lady Dolley Madison hosted a gala at a hotel. Four hundred tickets sold for $4 each. In 1833, two balls were staged for President Andrew Jackson. William Henry Harrison attended all three of his 1841 inaugural balls.

The inaugural ball quickly turned into a highlight of Washington society, and its location became a prime topic of discussion and angst, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) says. Organizers wanted a building that could accommodate large numbers of guests. A temporary wooden building was erected in the city's Judiciary Square in 1849 for one of Zachary Taylor's inaugural balls. By the time of James Buchanan's inauguration in 1857, the idea of multiple balls was abandoned for one grand ball for thousands of guests. Again a temporary ballroom was built for the occasion.

In 1865, the ball following Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration took place at the Patent Office — the first time a government building was used for the celebration. The inaugural ball for Ulysses Grant in 1869 was held in the Treasury Building. Apparently, there was not enough room there for dancing, and a snafu in the checkroom forced many guests to leave without their coats and hats, the JCCIC says. So for Grant's 1873 inauguration, a temporary building was again constructed.

Grant's second ball proved a disaster, however, according to the JCCIC. The weather was freezing, and the temporary structure had no heat or insulation. Guests danced in their overcoats and hats, the food was cold, they ran out of coffee and hot chocolate, and even the caged decorative canaries froze.

Later inaugural balls were held at the National Museum Building (now the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building) and the Pension Building, which became the favorite venue from 1885 through 1909.

In 1913, inaugural organizers began planning the ball to celebrate Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, again to be held at the Pension Building, but Wilson felt the ball was too expensive and unnecessary for the solemn occasion of the inauguration, and asked the Inaugural Committee to cancel it. Washington had not missed an inaugural ball since 1853, when President Franklin Pierce — mourning the recent loss of his son — asked that the ball be canceled. Although some District of Columbia residents felt very disappointed by Wilson's request, others felt relieved, the JCCIC says. The Pension Building was often closed for more than a week in preparation for the ball, causing the government's business there to shut down.

President-elect Warren G. Harding also requested that planners do away with the elaborate ball (and the parade) in 1921, hoping to set an example of thrift and simplicity. The committee complied, and instead, the chairman of the Inaugural Ball Committee hosted a huge private party at his home. Subsequent inaugurations followed this trend, with charity balls becoming the fashion for the inaugurations of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the JCCIC said.

President Harry Truman revived the official ball in 1949. Organizers for Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural ball added a second event due to the demand for tickets. Eisenhower's second inauguration featured four balls. President John Kennedy attended five in 1961. President Jimmy Carter attempted to strip the balls of their glitz in 1977, according to the JCCIC, calling them parties and charging no more than $25 each. By the second inaugural of President Bill Clinton in 1997, the number of balls reached an all-time high of 14. George W. Bush's inaugural in 2001 saw the number of official balls decline to eight, and his second inaugural in 2005 was celebrated with nine.

After President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the president and first lady attended 10 official inaugural balls on January 20, 2009.

President Obama and Michelle Obama dancing on stage (AP Images)

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the 2009 inaugural ball for military families.