The White House Easter Egg Roll is upon us again, with its usual light-hearted fanfare and wholesome traditions. There will be bunny costumes, live music performances and senior government officials reading from picture books. And most of all, there will be lots and lots of children, with crowds expected to number up to 30,000. According to Smithsonian, it’s the largest annual White House event.
While the modern tradition is closely associated with the presidency, Easter egg-rolling in Washington, D.C., actually started on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, beneath the shiny white shell of the Capitol dome. But the activity was once so scandalous, and spun so far out of control, that an angry Congress outlawed it on their turf. On Monday, if lawmakers look across the National Mall with envy of the president’s annual worry-free photo op, they have nobody to blame but their own predecessors.
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Egg-rolling originated hundreds of years ago in the United Kingdom, where, as an Easter tradition, children would take eggs, hard-boiled and decorated, to the top of an English hillside and compete to see whose would roll the farthest without cracking. Doing so on the U.S. government’s grass dates back to the 1870s, when extensions of the Capitol’s north and south wings were nearing completion and the western lawn was used for little more than construction staging. The building’s marble terrace did not yet exist, and Congress had just recently employed the consulting services of a young landscape architect by the name of Frederick Law Olmsted to beautify the area. It was a high-profile project, and the chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, Sen. Justin Morrill, admonished him “not to have it botched.”
It was onto this scene that hundreds and later thousands of children would annually descend in a demolition derby of egg-throwing chaos. While the modern White House egg roll is a tightly organized event, the early tradition was a much more informal affair. There were no permits, tickets or security to speak of. Newspapers would write of the hordes of unsupervised children that spontaneously converged on Capitol Hill, “racing, and tumbling and rolling, regardless alike of limbs and dress, or what nurses or mas’ said or thought. The sport was exhilarating, although the re-ascent and incidents of tumble and roll became so exciting that the shouts of laughter and the merry cries of comrade to comrade made a glad chorus which swelled along the line.”
The celebration of 1876 drew an unusually boisterous crowd, with a reporter for the National Republican describing the Capitol grounds as “thronged with lads and lassies, aye, and many older heads congregated to witness the pranks and capers of the boys and girls in rolling the eggs from the crest of the hill to the lawn below.” Poorly timed morning rainfall that year “had the effect of dampening the grass somewhat,” but could not deter the stampede of tiny feet sprinting across the soggy lawns.
The next day lawmakers arrived at the Capitol to a scene resembling an abandoned carnival ground. Little bits of eggshells covered everything. Spoiled hard-boiled eggs attracted opportunistic birds and bugs. But worst off was the grass: The thousands of tiny foot prints had torn up the muddy lawn more effectively than a tractor.
Morrill was incensed and began drafting legislation the very same day.
“I suppose the great pleasure of seeing ten thousand children here on Easter Monday has prevented the police from doing their duty,” Morrill lamented on the Senate floor. “Although it is a very great pleasure to see these children enjoying themselves here on Easter Monday, it is deemed important that we should protect the grounds.”
Some of Morrill’s colleagues spoke up in favor of the children, noting that “they are generally from a class of citizens who have little opportunity for enjoying themselves.” Indeed, the annual event was celebrated by newspapers as “the festival of the poor,” for being open to all races and classes. The chairman was adamant, however, about kicking the kids off the Congressional backyard. Urging passage of his bill, Morrill insisted, “I know that the Russian government in the winter season provide places for their citizens to slide; but I hardly think it is proper that here, in the spring of the year, at so large an expense both of money and of the appearance of the public grounds, we should allow these terraces to be entirely ruined by the process that was witnessed last Monday.”
Morrill got his votes the next week, and President Ulysses Grant promptly signed the following one-sentence-long Turf Protection Act into law.
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That it shall be the duty of the Capitol police hereafter to prevent any portion of the Capitol grounds and terraces to be used as play-grounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury.”
Frederick Law Olmsted had just the solution for what he deemed the “broken, confused and unsatisfactory” appearance of the then Capitol grounds. A huge wraparound marble terrace constructed over the muddy embankment would eliminate the eyesore and would act as a visual pedestal for the building’s shiny new dome. This stunning platform and stairway would go on to host presidential inaugural activities and form the backdrop for millions of modern photographs.
The Egg Roll in 1877 was precluded by heavy rainfall, so the Turf Protection Act went untested by District children its first year. However, the next year, a few days before Easter, President Rutherford B. Hayes reportedly encountered a young boy while he was out walking. “Say! Say!” the child is said to have asked, “Are you going to let us roll eggs in your yard?” Uninformed about the tradition, the former Ohio governor responded, “I don’t know. I’ll have to see about that.” But by the time flocks of children appeared at the White House gates, having been just turned away from the Capitol grounds by police on Easter Monday morning, the president had already “good-humoredly instructed the officer in charge of the grounds to make no objection,” according to the New York Evening Post.
The same paper reported that the subsequent year another boy asked Hayes if the children could make his backyard their playground that Easter Monday, to which he expressed no objection. And by 1880, the Evening Post wrote, “the little people seem to have taken executive clemency for granted, for no small spokesman has accosted the president.” While 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may not be as well-suited as the Hill to the original egg-rolling custom, the children did feel more welcome there, and successive presidents have continued the Easter tradition of playing host to the capital’s children on the South Lawn ever since—and probably will so as long as the now-142-year-old law remains in full force.