The first Inaugural ball traces its roots to New York City on May 7, 1789, one week after the Inauguration of George Washington. But it wasn’t until 1809 that the first “official” Inaugural ball was held. First Lady Dolley Madison (wife of James Madison) hosted a gala in which 400 tickets were sold at $4 each. (Compare that to the $5,000 price of admission for one of the balls being planned to commemorate the Inauguration of our new president).
In 1833, two balls were held for President Andrew Jackson, while William Henry Harrison attended three of the 1841 Inaugural balls held in his honor. Even back then, Inaugural balls were considered a highlight of Washington D.C.’s social scene, making their location very important.
For that reason, a temporary wooden building was erected in 1849 for one of Zachary Taylor’s Inaugural balls. By the time James Buchanan’s Inauguration was held in 1857, it was decided to have one grand ball instead of multiple small ones. Food purchased included $3,000 worth of wine, 400 gallons of oysters, 500 quarts of chicken salad, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, 60 saddles of mutton, 8 rounds of beef, 75 hams, and 125 tongues.
In 1865, the ball following Lincoln’s second Inauguration took place in the model room of the Patent Office—the first time a government building was used. In spite of war and food shortages, the menu was opulent and extravagant. It included: Oyster stew, terrapin stew, oysters shelled, roast beef, fillet of beef, leg of veal, roast turkey, boned turkey, breast chicken, pheasant, quail, venison, ham, salads, ornamental pyramids, cakes and tarts, jellies and creams, ice creams, fruit ices, grapes, almonds and raisins.
For the most memorable Inaugural ball-gone-wrong, one would have to go back to Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration. The weather was freezing cold and the temporary structure built to host the ball had no heat or insulation. Guests danced in their overcoats and hats, the food was cold, and they ran out of coffee and hot chocolate. The worst part, however, was that 100 canaries, brought in for the ambiance, froze in their cages.
Balls were cancelled at the request of the president-elects in 1913 (Woodrow Wilson) because it was too expensive and unnecessary; 1853 (Franklin Pierce) because he was mourning the loss of his son; and 1921 (Warren G. Harding), hoping to set an example of thrift and simplicity.
Subsequent Inaugurations followed this trend, with charity balls becoming the fashion for Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
President Harry Truman revived the official ball in 1949, and the 1953 event for Dwight D. Eisenhower included two balls. Eisenhower’s second Inauguration featured four balls, followed by five balls for John F. Kennedy in 1961. In 1997 the number of balls reached an all-time high under President Clinton at 14. George W. Bush had only eight at his first Inauguration and nine at his second.
The new president-elect plans to attend 10 balls.