The Long and Sometimes Glamorous History of Inaugural Balls

The galas are famous for their dresses and their furs, but not all have gone smoothly.


The tradition of inaugural balls stretches back to the first president. But along with featuring sumptuous spreads and elegant gowns, the history of the galas has included crowded dance floors, lost furs—and even 100 frozen canaries.

The 1789 ball wasn't official. Even so, 300 guests attended. The women carried fans decorated with George Washington's profile—gifts of the French government. Washington danced a minuet and two cotillions.

Later, guests were lucky to see the president dance even one full song. In 2001, the length of the time George and Laura Bush danced at each ball ranged between 29 and 56 seconds.

The sumptuousness of inaugural celebrations has also varied (some would say declined) through history. At the first official inaugural ball in 1809, the menu included champagne, terrapin, and "Charlotte Chantilly." James Buchanan's 1857 ball prided itself on sheer amount: $3,000 spent on wine, 1,200 quarts of ice cream, and 400 gallons of oysters. And Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration offered $500-per-plate dinners at the Kennedy Center.

Other celebrations have been more staid. In 1945, an increasingly ill Franklin D. Roosevelt, presiding over a war-wracked country, had no inaugural balls at all. Nor did he have a parade, and the luncheon he served guests at the White House featured chicken salad, rolls (without butter), and poundcake. (He got through the luncheon only by having his son smuggle him a tumbler of bourbon from his room.)

At the more recent galas, though, lavishness has been promised—but not necessarily seen. "Never have so many paid so much to dance so little," Lyndon B. Johnson said of the overcrowded 1965 balls.

And at President Bill Clinton's record-breaking 14 inaugural balls in 1997, boxed wine was served, ham and cheese sandwiches cost $5.50, and police had to calm guests waiting in an hour and a half-long coat-check line. But his wasn't the first coat-check fiasco. In 1989, Republicans at George H. W. Bush's ball became so frustrated that they quit the queues and went home, leaving 18 furs behind.

But it has to be the canaries of Ulysses S. Grant's 1873 inauguration that have had the worst luck at the balls. In the 16-degree temperature of a temporary wooden building constructed for the occasion, champagne turned to slush, guests danced in coats and hats, oysters froze, and violin strings snapped. And then there were the 100 canaries, brought in as a whimsical touch.

"They forgot to warm the place up where the ball was held, and the poor canaries froze to death," says Jim Bendat, author of Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2009.

Given the unevenness of inauguration history, no one can say what snafus might ensue on January 20. But, one hopes, there will at least be heating.