(Photo Gallery of Presidential Families in Costumes follow below this essay)
Halloween has been celebrated in the United States at parties for well over a century, but not until the 1950s did it go entirely mainstream with mass-produced costumes for children and packaged candy to give them as treats. So it was true among Presidential First Families.
During the 1950s, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower became the first known White House resident to officially mark the holiday by having the state floor rooms decorated with ghosts, goblins, spider, skeletons and cobwebs. In fact, during her large luncheons held at that time of the year, she had the State Dining Room outfitted with Woolworth paper skeletons hanging from the chandelier, paper black cats and witches placed around the tables and carved pumpkins as centerpieces. In some rooms, she had orange light-bulbs replace clear ones to cast a ghostly shadow and color for atmosphere. In the Cross Hall, she wrapped the stately white columns in orange and black crepe paper streamers and had bales of hay and cornstalks parked alongside them.
A few years later, in the early 1960s, the annual holiday celebration coincided with the White House residence of the very young children of the President and Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John who thus became the first First Daughter and First Son to mark Halloween in the old mansion.
But their mother, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy loved the holiday too – and became the first First Lady known to have dressed up in an adult costume of her own for a White House Halloween.
In 1962, she took a large black garment bag, cut out two holes for eyes and put it over her head.
With black stockings, black boots and black gloves, Jackie managed a few moments of anonymity even in the White House, welcoming the President’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith (who copied Jackie’s costume and wore a red garment bag) and her son Steve, in the allegedly haunted Lincoln Bedroom, along with First Daughter Caroline Kennedy.
Then the four went down the elevator from the family quarters and walked out along the West Collonade to the Oval Office where the kids “scared” the President.
Every First Family since the Kennedys has hosted a Halloween event of some kind, whether it was a private party for friends and family or a large Halloween party for local children on the South Lawn or in the state rooms.
During the 1990s, the Clintons held an annual Halloween party which they anticipated with delight, inviting friends, family and staff members, to help celebrate First Lady Hillary Clinton’s October 27 birthday in costume. President Bill Clinton was an especially good sport – becoming the Chief Executive who dressed up in more annual Halloween costumes than any other before or since.
Long before, the children and adults who’ve called the White House home were planning and premiering their costumes on the annual Halloween holiday, however, they were wearing elegant eye-masks, disguises, turbans, hats and other bits of costuming for annual winter masquerade balls. Traditionally part of Carnival celebrations these were hosted just before the Lenten season began, usually coinciding with Valentines Day or George Washington’s Birthday, which Presidents once marked with elegant dance parties known as “the Birthnight Ball.”
The first documented costume party held at the White House was hosted by President John Tyler on February 22, 1844.
Widowed only seventeen months at that point, the 54-year old President became so smitten with the 24-year old debutante Julia Gardiner of New York, she recalled, that he chased her around tables and even abruptly asked her to marry him. She noted that she wore a Greek folk costume and that, in turning down Tyler’s proposal, she shook her head while repeating “no, no, no” so rapidly that the tassels of her cap swiped across the President’s face. They eloped four months later.
Tyler’s extensive First Family all liked dressing in costumes, apparently. The first documented White House children’s costume party took place two months before the first hosted for adults, a December 1843 birthday celebration for the President’s granddaughter Mary Fairlee Tyler.
All the invited children guests were dressed in different outfits and costumes, the party overseen by the elderly former First Lady Dolley Madison, the widower President and his daughter-in-law (Mary’s mother) Priscilla Cooper Tyler, who was then serving as First Lady (an engraving shown below).
Twenty-five years later, the outgoing President Andrew Johnson hosted an 1869 costume ball for his five grandchildren who had lived with him in the White House during his incumbency. The belle of the ball was none other than Belle, daughter of the President’s own daughter Martha Patterson, who served as the public First Lady for her mother Eliza Johnson, who suffered from mild tuberculosis (Belle Patterson in costume is shown below).
Although William Howard Taft and his wife First Lady Nellie Taft had enjoyed dressing up as the Doge and Dogess of Venice (the medieval role of governor of the once-independent state of Venice before the nation of Italy was created) for a Carnival Ball they hosted while he was the U.S. Governor-General of the Philippines, once they entered the White House five years later, in 1909, they held no costume party.
It was a century and a decade after President Tyler costume party before one of his successors hosted another one; this time it was the January 1934 birthday party of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dressed as the “Delphic Oracle” and First Daughter Anna Roosevelt came as a water nymph.
All other guests were expected to appear in ancient classic costume, and the rooms were filled with New Deal aides and advisers dressed in togas and Roman guard costumes.
Of course, none but the President would dare appear as the infamous dictator himself, Julius Caesar.
Presidential First Families in Costume at Halloween & Other Parties
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