First Ladies Not Big on Bunnies: White House Easter Egg Roll No-Shows

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1939 Easter Egg Roll holding a lost child.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1939 Easter Egg Roll holding a lost child.

As National Mother, every First Lady has loved children more than any demographic. So, the history books would have us believe.

The first to return to the festivities after no First Ladies appeared for a third of a century, Betty Ford permits a clown to apply some makeup to her face at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll. (Ford Library)

The first to return to the festivities after no First Ladies appeared for a third of a century, Betty Ford permits a clown to apply some makeup to her face at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll. (Ford Library)

Certainly that seems to be the case in observing the joyful interactions with little ones among the last seven presidential spouses (Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama) on Easter Monday at the annual Easter Egg Roll, to be held next Monday yet again.

Not too long ago, however, a good number of First Ladies would rather not have soiled their white gloves with chocolate bunny stains.

If you taking an accounting of it all, starting with the first known presidential administration to host a White House Easter Egg Roll, there have been far more First Ladies to show up, look out, and cheer on the crowds of thousands of kids than the number of those who have not.

Oh no, no Dolley. Mrs. Madison as painted by George Catlin.

Oh no, no Dolley. Mrs. Madison as painted by George Catlin.

Still, some of the First Ladies who were not big on bunnies are among the most legendary of White House hostesses: Dolley Madison, Mary Lincoln, Edith Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy.

It might be unfair to count Dolley Madison, only because she was long gone before there was even such an event.

Like the too-good-to-be-true fable about President William Howard Taft getting stuck in a White House bathtub, Mrs. Madison’s mythology still credits her with starting the annual Easter Egg Roll – where credit isn’t due.

Even the First Lady who most historians believe was the one who initiated the custom, Lucy Hayes, really didn’t. It was her husband. And it may not have even been him.

The reverse of a 2011 gold commemorative coin designed by Barbara Fox, shows Lucy Hayes applauding children participating in the first White House Easter Egg Roll. (US Mint)

The reverse of a 2011 gold commemorative coin designed by Barbara Fox, shows Lucy Hayes applauding children participating in the first White House Easter Egg Roll. (US Mint)

According to an April 17, 1884 article, “Easter Monday,” in the Memphis Daily Appeal, it was President Grant and not President Hayes under whose Administration egg-rolling children, banished from their Easter Monday games on the U.S. Capitol Building lawn were first invited to move the fun to the White House.

And there is no mention of Julia Grant involving herself.

Eliza McCardle Johnson. (ncpedia.org)

Eliza McCardle Johnson. (ncpedia.org)

The article further states that egg-rolling had been taking place at the White House for at least “a quarter of a century,” a statement which is corroborated by the memoirs of White House aide William Crook, who affirmed that it the Lincoln Administration sponsored a private one.

And Mary Lincoln did not show up for that one.

In fact, the earliest documented instance of a First Lady appearing at a White House Easter Egg Roll credits the somewhat obscure Eliza Johnson, who suffered from chronic tuberculosis and usually refrained from appearing at large public events.

The Clintons kick off the 1995 Easter Egg Roll.

The Clintons kick off the 1995 Easter Egg Roll.

And while it may be counter-intuitive to the caricatures shaped of them, two of the most overtly political First Ladies who expended much of their energy and used the media to focus on public policy issues were especially eggcited annually by the event and never known to have missed the big roll during their incumbencies: Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.

Grace Coolidge brought the only known White House cat to oversee the Easter Egg Roll.

Grace Coolidge brought the only known White House cat to oversee the Easter Egg Roll.

Another among those First Ladies who wouldn’t dare skip out on the White House Easter Egg Roll, Grace Coolidge, takes the marshmallow for parading the widest variety of pets before the kiddies on the lawn. She brought not only her dogs but her raccoon and even a cat.

The custom of bringing beloved presidential pets to the White House Easter Egg Roll began with Hector, the dog of Grover and Frances Cleveland and caramel-colored poodle Caro Taft, irascible Airedale Laddie Boy, white collie Prudence Prim Coolidge and police dog Major Delano Roosevelt upheld the tradition.

Michelle Obama and her dog Bo at the 2011White House Easter Egg Roll. (Getty)

Michelle Obama and her dog Bo at the 2011White House Easter Egg Roll. (Getty)

Over a third of a century passed before another First Lady showed up and even when they returned again, starting in 1975, it would be another third of a century before a White House pet returned to the festivities.

Whether or not she was aware of this, First Lady Michelle Obama revived the ancient custom when she appeared at her first White House Easter Egg Roll in 2009, along with First Poochie Bo, a Portuguese Water Dog.

Pat Nixon's daughters Julie and Tricia both appeared at separate White House Easter Egg Roll festivities, but the First Lady...nor any of the family dogs did.

Pat Nixon’s daughters Julie and Tricia both appeared at separate White House Easter Egg Roll festivities, but the First Lady…nor any of the family dogs did.

Yet it was one of the no-shows who was, in fact, responsible for bringing a thoughtful orderliness to the White House Easter Egg Roll so that young guests would long years afterwards have proof of their attendance: Pat Nixon started the custom of printing certificates of attendance, as well as plastic eggs with welcoming messages from her.

To read in greater detail and see many previously unpublished photographs of First Ladies at the White House Easter Egg Roll over the centuries, go the five-part series currently posted on the National First Ladies Library Blog:

First Ladies & The White House Easter Egg Roll: Who Went & Who Didn’t, 1801-1861 (Part 1)

First Ladies & The Easter Egg Roll: Who Went & Who Didn’t, 1862-1888 (Part 2)

First Ladies & The White House Easter Egg-Roll: Who Went & Who Didn’t, 1889-1941 (Part 3)

First Ladies & The White House Easter Egg Roll: Who Went & Who Didn’t, 1942-1974 (Part 4)

First Ladies & the White House Easter Egg Roll: Who Went & Who Didn’t, Since 1975 (Part 5)

 


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4 replies »

  1. Carl-I haven’t written for a while but have been following all of your posts and enjoying them. I continue to be astounded at the pictures you have managed to find. i always thought there was only one picture of Mrs Andrew Johnson-but here is another! As always-thanks fo rthe great post and incredible pics.

    Richard Klein
    New York, NY

    • Yes – I think it proves that there is always something we didn’t know or see and assumed it didn’t exist. I was quite fascinated to find this. There is also one other image of her which shows Eliza Johnson as rather sturdy, hardy, even plump – hardly the groove of a wasted invalid history has fixed her in. Thanks for writing Richard.

  2. The Coolidge’s second son was born on April 13, 1908 very near Easter. They were slow in choosing a name for him and called him “Bun” for Bunny. A month later – he still had no name. At last Grace asserted he had to have a proper name. Cal reportedly said, “Well, it looks like he might amount to something so we’ll call him ‘Calvin’.” – Calvin Coolidge, Jr.

    • Thank you Jim – I didn’t know that. I also know the story of President Coolidge finding a bunny on the White House lawn and how it symbolized for him his lost son.

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