History Rolls On: Eisenhower and the Easter Egg Roll

A black and white image of a large crowd on the south lawn of the White House
A large crowd gathered for the 1953 White House Easter Egg Roll

Eisenhower Presidential Library

How did a tradition involving eggs, a lawn, and the President of the United States begin over one-hundred and forty years ago? The Easter Egg Roll is one of the White House’s most popular annual events. The tradition of egg rolling on Easter is believed to have originated in Scotland where participants rolled oatcakes down a hill during the holiday. The origins of the official White House Easter Egg Roll began with the public having informal, disorganized egg rolls the Monday after Easter on the Capitol building’s lawn. This changed after legislation called the Turf Protection Law was passed by Congress in 1876, preventing the public from hosting an Easter egg roll or other events on the Capitol lawn after the previous year’s event damaged the landscape. Rain cancelled any hope of festivities the following year. Crowds gathered once again around the Capitol in 1878 but were disappointed to see the legislation enforced. That is when President Rutherford Hayes stepped in and allowed the participants to roll eggs on the White House’s South Lawn instead. He was moved to act, seeing how much the public (and in particular the children) cared about this event. This began the tradition of the White House Easter Egg Roll that continues to this very day.

Over the course of the Second World War the White House Easter Egg Roll was suspended due to rationing of food and inability to guarantee the event’s safety during wartime. After the war ended, continued rationing of food and renovation of the White House during the Truman administration further postponed the event’s return. The American public did not roll Easter eggs on the South Lawn until President Dwight D. Eisenhower resumed the tradition in 1953. The Washington D.C. newspaper Evening Star reported, “Easter egg-rolling enthusiasts invited to the White House grounds for the first time since 1941, probably will have the opportunity of seeing President and Mrs. Eisenhower.” With preparations for the event underway, Ike wrote in a letter to William H. Burnham dated April 2, 1953 that, “At the moment the White House staff is girding itself for the Easter Roll on Monday. Fences have been erected (resembling snow fences you find in New England) in an effort to confine the activities to the circle of lawn on the south side of the White House.” This was the first egg roll event in several years; therefore, the public’s reaction to hearing news of the revival was ecstatic. Special Easter baskets were made for Eisenhower’s grandchildren to carry the eggs they collected during the event.

When the day of the 1953 Easter egg roll came, thousands arrived at the White House gate for the event to begin. A Vermont newspaper, the Burlington Daily News stated that they expected more than 50,000 people to attend the event. The first wave of eager egg-rollers that entered the grounds numbered 12,000. They were so excited to see the president that he and his family had to withdraw from the lawn as the crowd swarmed toward them. Once the crowd calmed, the Eisenhower’s emerged from the White House balconies overlooking the South Lawn so everyone could see them. Ike and Mamie ensured that the Easter egg roll continued throughout his presidency.

Easter was an important holiday for the Eisenhower family. Mamie always tried to look her best for the Sunday church service and the egg roll the next day. The Evening Star described the outfit Mamie is wearing in the family’s Easter picture. The paper stated, “When the First Lady accompanies the President to the morning service at the National Presbyterian Church at noon, she will be the picture of chic in a two-piece black suit topped by a white chapeau. If the air is a bit chill she will have about her shoulders her Norwegian white fox fur cape.” Mamie’s Easter outfits influenced the American public’s fashion so much that the outfit she was going to wear in 1954 was modeled in New York before being sent to the First Lady. The Jackson, Mississippi newspaper Clarion-Ledger described Mamie’s Easter outfits as, “Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower’s Easter outfit is one of Washington’s best kept secrets.” The Eisenhower’s knew the value of personal appearances and the Easter egg roll was no exception. At the 1956 Easter egg roll, the President interacted with children and their families at the White House gates by receiving and distributing Easter eggs. In fact, Ike’s final year in office was the last time a president made a personal appearance at the White House Easter Egg Roll for over a decade.

What was required to participate in an Easter egg roll during the Eisenhower administration? The Burlington Daily News stated, “The only admission card needed was a smiling face that looked 12 years old or younger. Adults were welcome only if they had a child in tow. The only other rule was: Bring your own eggs.” Press Secretary James Hagerty stated that the tradition of the public bringing their own eggs began at the original White House Egg Roll in 1878. Participants compete against one another, rolling their brightly colored hard-boiled eggs with wooden spoons through designated lanes to the finish line. After the Eisenhower administration brought back this long-standing tradition, the festivities of the day continued to evolve; therefore, the event remained relevant for generations to come.

The White House Easter Egg Roll retains public interest for how it has both honored the traditions of previous years and added new ones. For example, First Lady Pat Nixon was the first to have an Easter bunny at the White House. First Ladies Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford gave children plastic eggs with paper autographs on the inside. This tradition evolved when Nancy Reagan instituted that every young visitor should be given a collectable wooden egg adorned with the President and First Lady’s signatures (a tradition still continued to this day). Some examples of the additional activities included over the years are Easter egg hunts, antique car exhibits, a petting zoo, the First Lady and President reading to the children, folk dancing, talent shows, live band music, and even a classroom lesson on the history of the White House Egg Roll.

As the White House Easter Egg Roll evolves over time it also continues its proud tradition of inviting thousands of children and their families to celebrate the holiday with the family of the Chief Executive. Although occasionally postponed due to war, inclement weather, or most recently, a global pandemic, the annual event is still a public favorite because of how it uniquely connects the President of the United States to the people they represent. The 1953 revival of this cherished celebration of springtime instituted by President and First Lady Eisenhower, has brought generations of people together and inspired future generations to continue rolling on.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, Eisenhower National Historic Site, The White House and President's Park

Last updated: February 29, 2024