J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Myth of Dolley Madison and the Easter Egg Roll

Many authors have written about Dolley Madison instituting the tradition of rolling eggs on the White House grounds on or around Easter.

The story goes way back. A magazine called The Industrial Enterprise quoted the 11 Apr 1909 Detroit Free Press as stating:
The custom of having the children of Washington come to the White House on the Monday following Easter and roll eggs originated so far in the distant past that its beginning is uncertain. It is the current belief, however, that Dolly [sic] Madison first gathered them in and herself prepared the eggs which they rolled, coloring them a scarlet by boiling them wrapped about with red flannel which faded upon them.
And it’s still current. In 2017 the Politico website stated: “The roots of the Easter Egg Roll are often traced to President James Madison and first lady, Dolly Madison, but these early public celebrations were held on Capitol Hill.”

Even the White House Historical Association passes on that factoid, though fobbing it off on others: “Some historians note that First Lady Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll…”

In fact, that’s all a myth. As the Dolley Madison Papers explain, there’s absolutely no evidence behind it.
During the Founding Era,…religious observances such as Easter and Christmas were simply not part of the national calendar. Indeed, when James Madison was President of the United States, Easter was not yet a publicly celebrated holiday; it was observed neither at the president’s mansion—not yet officially known as the White House—nor by Congress. And a search of Dolley’s letters fails to produce a single mention of Easter or Easter eggs. That leaves two questions: when and where did the tradition begin, and what does Dolley Madison have to do with it?
The tradition in Washington, D.C., can be definitely dated to the years after the Civil War. Late in the Ulysses Grant administration, Congress barred children from playing on the Capitol grounds, but President Rutherford B. Hayes welcomed them at the White House. The press coverage of the event really took off in the 1880s and 1890s, turning it into a national institution.

That same period coincided with America’s Centennial and Colonial Revival, when Dolley Madison became the nation’s paragon of a political hostess. Her papers site says:
She was the symbol of American hospitality, warmth, and graciousness. By the late 19th century manufacturers were using her image to promote their products. Between 1876, which marked the end of Reconstruction, and World War II, all kinds of manufacturers used her image as part of their advertising campaigns to send a message of grace and charm and cordiality. If not unique, Dolley Madison was one of the very few American icons with an equal appeal to both the North and the South.
Thus, if there was any sort of venerable public event in Washington, it made sense to say Dolley Madison was the earliest hostess.

1 comment:

Aaron Brett said...

I am always amazed how often an event or a quote is attributed to somebody that had nothing to do with it (usually for reasons that make complete sense). I am equally amazed by how it becomes conventional wisdom and how often people cite it. Thank you!