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Lincoln's 1865 Inaugural Ball: 'A Terrific Crush At The Supper Table'

By Amy Cavanaugh in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 21, 2013 5:00PM

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

At his 2009 inauguration, President Obama attended 10 official inaugural balls. This year, he'll be cutting back to just a few, as a reflection of the country's economic state. This year's inaugural ball menus are apparently so unimpressive that the Inauguration Committee won't release them.

Presidents have gone back and forth on the subject of inaugural balls. George Washington had one in New York at the first inauguration in 1789. Franklin Pierce cancelled his in 1853, since his son had just died. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson said they were too expensive. In 1921, Warren G. Harding cancelled all balls, and "charity balls" were held until 1949, when Harry S. Truman brought them back for his second inauguration.

But when presidents embraced inaugural balls, they were major parties.

By the time of James Buchanan's Inauguration in 1857, the idea of multiple balls was abandoned for one grand ball that could accommodate thousands of guests. Again, a temporary ballroom was built in Judiciary Square for the occasion. Food purchased for Buchanan's ball 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.

Abraham Lincoln had two balls, in 1861 and 1865. In 1861, despite the impending war, a ball was held "in a specially-constructed hall on Judiciary Square. Lincoln entered arm-in-arm with his Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, while Mary Todd Lincoln, much to everyone's surprise, held the arm of Senator Stephen Douglas, her husband's rival."


But it's the 1865 inauguration that lives on in some truly fantastic accounts.

The ball, held March 6, 1865, was two days after the actual swearing in. Inaugurations weren't held on January 20 until Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second swearing in in 1937. Smithsonian Magazine wrote that a $10 ticket would admit three people to the ball, which was held at the Patent Office Building, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. 4,000 people attended and danced "quadrilles, waltzes and Virginia reels."

The New York Times reported that "Mr. Lincoln was evidently trying to throw off care for the time but with rather ill success, and looked very old; yet he seemed pleased and gratified as he was greeted by the people. He wore a plain black suit and white gloves." Meanwhile, Mrs. Lincoln's hair, "which was put plainly back from her face, was ornamented with trailing jessamine and clustering violets most gracefully."

The menu, catered by G. A. Balzer of Washington, D.C., was elaborate, with four beef preparations, three veal, four poultry, three game, two pates, and three smoked meats. Smithsonian spoke with food historian Paul Freedman to decode the menu.

Freedman describes the menu as, "French via England, with some American ingredients that you would never find in France," such as oyster stew and pickled oysters, which were definitely American.

Freedman points out the terrapin stew on this menu. Terrapin is a freshwater turtle; during Lincoln's time, fisherman caught the turtles in the Potomac River, just inland from the Chesapeake Bay, and sold them for a pretty penny. Though the dish has disappeared from American cuisine, chefs often boiled terrapin in a stew, made of eggs, cream and butter and seasoned with nutmeg, cayenne pepper and allspice. In an article from 1880, the Washington Post wrote " 'Stewed terrapin, Maryland style,' forms an important part of any Washington dinner laying claim to being a pretentious affair." Freedman, however, argues that if President Lincoln and his caterer wanted their meal to meet the highest standards of elegance they would have included terrapin not as a hors d'oeuvre but as an entrée.

"It is just before the end of the war, so they were probably in somewhat of a dilemma as to whether to celebrate the inaugural splendidly or modestly," says Freedman.

One entire side of the menu could be considered sweets, but Freedman notes that the meaning of "dessert" has changed over the years.

"Notice on this menu, they have tons of what we would call 'desserts,' but what they call 'dessert' are just little post-meal snacks, like grapes, almonds, raisins," says Freedman.

Prior to this "dessert" course, restaurants of President Lincoln's era would offer a "pastry," which might be a pie, cake, pudding or other confectionary.

There were also edible sculptures, called ornamental pyramides, in flavors like nougat, coconut, and caramel with "fancy cream candy." There were sugar models of the U.S. Capitol, Fort Sumter and Admiral David Farragut on the mast of his ship, the USS Hartford. What else? Pound cake, sponge cake, lady cake, and "fancy small cakes." Other dishes that we no longer eat include the Belle Alliance tart which used "winter pear, yellow on one side and red on the other," and Tarte a la Portugaise, which was probably a sort of rice pudding baked in a buttered pie dish.

Now onto the destruction.

A sugar model of the Capitol... was much admired until it began to dissolve on its pedestal in the shambles that ensued.

Instead of going to the tables in sequence, the crowd literally charged at the refreshments, wolfing down food, carrying off legs of lamb to be eaten in alcoves... Glasses were smashed. The marble floor was littered with pulp and debris. The hilarity grew as the night wore on, and some of the inebriates lay down to sleep it off. Laces and silks were torn in the free-for-all.

That account, (emphasis mine), from Ishbel Ross' "The President's Wife," matches what the New York Times and Washington Evening Star reported.

“In less than an hour the table was a wreck… positively frightful to behold,” the New York Times reported.

"The onset of the crowd upon the tables was frightful," the Star reported. "Numbers who could not find immediate room at the tables could be seen snatching whole patés, chickens, legs of veal, halves of turkies, ornamental pyramids, etc., from the tables and bearing them aloft over the heads of the shuddering crowd… The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake, and debris of fowl and meat."

The ball had a cash bar that served champagnes by De St. Marceaux & Co., Charles Heidsieck, or G.H. Mumm & Co., as well as “Old Sherry” and “Old Madeira."

Gentlemen were encouraged to have their appropriate payments ready when placing their beverage orders. Both “Carte Blanche” and “Carte Noire” varieties were offered by De St. Marceaux & Co. at $5.00 per quart and $3.00 per pint. Charles Heidsieck and G. H. Mumm & Co. champagnes were less expensive choices at $3.00 per quart and $2.00 per pint.

There's no record of how the Lincolns reacted to the debauchery, but they stayed at the party for three hours, which was an hour and a half after the food went out. But the guests kept the party going all night long. "The guests departed early in the morning, with the last rustle of silk skirts on the stairs leading down into the streets as the sky brightened."

Now that's a party.