tv Jonathan Pliska The White House Easter Egg Roll CSPAN April 2, 2018 7:55pm-8:22pm EDT
>> now a discussion about the history of the white house easter egg roll. american history tv recently interviewed landscape historian jonathan pliska about his book on the subject. he describes how presidents and first family have hosted the annual white house tradition since 1878 and what changes have been made along the way including the addition of bands, costumed characters, and keepsake wooden eggs. this is 25 minutes. >> jonathan pliska, you worked with the white house historical association to write a young reader's book about the white house easter egg roll. before we get into history, tell me about it today, how large is it in 2018? >> well, it would be a lot larger than it actually is except the popularity is so high and everybody wants to be a part of this that they generally cap the attendance at 30,000 to 35,000 people. >> where is it hold today? >> it's held on the south
grounds, the south lawn of the white house. that's what i like to call the president's backyard. >> and are the eggs real eggs? >> the eggs are sometimes real eggs. they also use these wooden eggs. >> i think we have some right here. yeah. they're collectibles. >> yes, definitely. but there are traditionally some real eggs used and in the past, it was all real eggs. >> who gets to go? >> well, anybody can go, but you need to submit your request online in advance, and then a lucky lottery winners get to go. the other thing is you need to have a small child with you, otherwise -- it really is an event for the kids. otherwise you'd just have a lot of adults like me wanting to go. >> your book really details a lot of the interesting history of this and has a long association with presidents. you suggest that the very earliest known connection might have been as far back as dolly
madison. what did you learn? >> absolutely. there's a longstanding oral history that goes all the way back to the 19th century. that was about 1810 on the u.s. capitol grounds and it was said her idea. her brain child. >> do we know where an egg roll tradition, you're a historian, did it come from someplace in our culture? was it british? >> does come from older traditions in england and also the european couldn't innocent. >> and so for the first x number of years it was always on the capital grounds. tell me about that part of the iftory. >> yeah. so beginning in about 1810, it was held on the capitol grounds then up through 1876, it stayed there and as you can imagine, it grew more and more popular as the years went on. and it also got more and more messy and expensive to clean up afterward. and after the 1876 event, congress actually passed a bill
outlawing easter egg rolling on the capitol grounds. >> in fact, little kids will like this, but you said the by-product could have been some really stinky times. >> absolutely. once the white house -- once the white house took over in 1878, there was an interlude of one year where there was no egg roll, but much like today, it was raining cats and dogs and nobody really wanted to go outside and roll eggs, anyway, in 1877. once it moved to the white house grounds, it was said you could actually smell the white house easter egg roll before you could see it. >> if they couldn't find the eggs and hardboiled eggs were left to rot, that was a problem. >> it was a problem. that is something that happened in the 20th century. there was one year in the nixon administration they decided to use a lot more real eggs and a few got misplaced, shall we say, for a while. that was the last time they did that. >> 1876 was rutherford b. hayes. right? >> yes. >> why did president hayes and
his family decide to take over this tradition? >> the president was out on his daily walk and some schoolchildren encountered him and they said, we have no place to roll our eggs now. he said, that's odd. why don't you just come back with me and you can roll eggs on the white house grounds? and a couple hundred children did that first year in 1878. >> and then as time goes by, you tell this in your story, first of all, it's also accompanied by illustrations. who did the illustrations? >> john hutton. an absolutely genius artist and art historian. >> what were you collaboratively trying to achieve with this? >> what we were trying to do was have a book that was both educational and fun and accessible to as wide a variety of readers as we could. we'd like it to be a book that children can read, but also especially for younger children, that hopefully the parents will read to the children.
and, but it will still be interesting for the parents, too. >> one of your specialties is actually garden history and landscape history. and you write in the book that the south lawn where the event is still held today is perfect for egg rolling. what about it makes it perfect? >> well, there are these artificial hills. they're known as the mounds. and they are absolutely perfect for rolling children as well as -- for rolling eggs as well as children. the kids generally like to tumble down -- >> a few kids, too. so it's not a steep hill, but it's a gently rolling hill. >> it is. it's a lot of fun. it's pretty good for sledding in the winter, too, if d.c. gets enough snow. >> so as presidents went along, virtually every president continued the tradition but kept adding things. one of the first things to be added was the marine band. tell me about the addition of music to the event. >> it was a sort of secret
unveiling. there was all of a sudden a band platform and a tent and the children were showing up and going, what's this all about? what's going on? and then president harrison, benjamin harrison, and his young grandson, walked out onto the south portico and the marine band struck up a number and all the children cheered. the music has been an integral part ever since. the marine band is still involved. >> the marine band along with a legendary conductor, john philip sousa. what was his role? >> his role was to be the leader. he included his own compositions from time to time. "stars and stripes forever" of course being the most well known as well as a whole variety of popular music from the time. >> as you were describing the harrisons walking out, i can actually envision our current president walking out to the portico with grandchildren. so history and tradition really continues with this. >> absolutely.
and that's really the beauty of the easter egg roll. it is one of the oldest and most deeply loved traditions in all but not just the at the white house but of of washington, d.c. and the more things change the more they stay the same sometimes. >> presidents who have had children you tell a number of stories along the way with the children being involved. what are some of your favorite presidential children or grandchildren stories? >> well, i very much love this story of president carter and his -- his -- both his children and his grandchildren being there when they brought in animals for the easter egg roll. and it wasn't just -- there were bunnies but it was also -- they brought in, among other things, an enormous, like, 800-pound steer, and that was just a big wow moment, there was this animal on the white house grounds. it was a heck of a petting zoo,
really. >> there are other stories about animals being involved. i remember one about a president that didn't show up but their dog, laddie boy, did. what's that story? >> well, that was the hardings. and during one of the years the president and first lady were not in attendance and that does happen from time to time. and in their stead, laddie boy presided over the entire day and he had his own special throne made and the dog handler, who is known as the master of the hounds at the time, had a very high-profile role in that, as well. there's a wonderful picture of this that was also included as part of the drawings in the book. >> laddie boy, we learned through our presidential history experiences, was really the first dog celebrity in the white house. the hardings really understood the connection between pets and the public. what did you learn about that?
>> it was just, as you said, he was a celebrity. arguably more famous than the president at the time. but it wasn't just laddie boy, for instance, the very next president coolidge, they had a raccoon named rebecca. she was originally supposed to be thanksgiving dinner for the white house. she was sent from the previous from mississippi to be made into food but she was tame, mrs. coolidge completely fell in love with her, wore, like, a shawl. she was very much involved in the ever egg rolls, too. >> the presidents would bring the pets and the pets would mix with the children. >> absolutely. >> the whole thing continued to gel as a great event for the public. were the newspapers always interested in this, was this always a media event? >> absolutely. >> it helps with the president's image. >> totally. >> later on there was the first radio broadcast. when did that happen?
>> the first radio broadcast was done by the hoovers, but it wasn't -- neither the president or the first lady actually spoke. the marine band played their music. >> would have been '28, '29. >> yes. >> what would it really be like? >> it was mostly the marine band's music, probably a lot of laughing kids in the background. one of thomas edison's early videos, actually, is the easter egg roll. it's available from the library of congress. it's online. so i would encourage everybody to see that too. >> you must have had a lot of fun looking at pictures and videos over the year. >> absolutely. >> where did you do most of your research? >> library of congress, national archives, good folks at the national park service and white house historical association for the most part. also online newspapers are absolutely wonderful source of information especially for something like the easter egg roll where you know what day
easter is in any given year, it's very easy to find the news coverage. there always was plenty of news coverage. >> do you know when the earliest photographs are from? >> the earliest photographs would be from, i would say, about the 1870s and they show children of all ages and period attire and it looks much more like sunday fineries than what we would expect, you know, current children to be wearing, big gowns, suits and ties, sometimes three-piece suits and ties. >> on little children. >> on little children. >> everybody was very formal going to the white house. >> well, yes, but only in their attire. you know, it was a big deal, but it was also time to have fun, like i said, there were kids rolling down the hills. in the cleveland administration, in addition to the easter egg roll, and the races, there was also egg croquette. egg baseball. all manner of mess happening both on the grounds and when the
president invited the kids inside the east room to shake their hands, famous stories of tracking egg all over the carpet and upholstery. >> were they at least hardboiled? >> yes. >> i wonder where all of the egg boils were going on, were talking about thousands of eggs at any given time. oh, my goodness. >> it really is. >> were they mostly prepared by the white house kitchens? >> they were. >> were they dyed throughout their time? >> yes, they would have been dyed. i believe in 1923, there was an extra shipment of 10,000 eggs brought in from kansas kind of at the last minute, the president was concerned there wouldn't be enough. >> world war i changed it. what happened during world war i? >> absolutely. the easter egg roll was suspended for the first time in its history during world war i. the first year america was
involved in the conflict, it was relocated to the washington monument grounds but after that, the ground were closed and weren't egg rolls because they wanted to send the message it was important to conserve food and resources and we really should be on a war footing and thinking of the soldiers overseas. >> how did it get restarted? >> it got restarted, simply -- after the end of the year, there was continued rationing after that, people were ready to have a good time again and the easter egg roll is very much a good time. >> so then it continued through steadily each president until world war ii. what happened then? >> well, pretty much the same thing, it just needed to be stopped because of the security concerns over world war ii and also to save and resources. that continued for a few years after world war ii as well, america was still working to
basically rebuild europe and then after that, president truman renovated the white house, the famous truman renovation and the entire south grounds became one massive construction site. >> i want to stay with the roosevelts for just a second, they had because they were in office for a long time the longest number of years hosting the easter egg roll. what were the plr -- partic lar things they had the kids do. trs >> it was just a good time. fdr was not known to make too big of an appearance because he was concealing his disability. but eleanor roosevelt was there. she was very much the leader of the easter egg roll during that time. she's the first lady or president to speak live directly from the easter egg roll on the radio and usually the weather was very good. there was one year where it was not so good. it was unnaturally very, very cold. only 5,000 kids showed up which is a tiny number.
she more or less urged everybody to run around, jump up and down a lot, have fun and stay warm. >> while we're talking about presidents and war, tell me what happened during the bush administration when the iraq war was going on. >> yes. so the president and first lady had a great idea that in order to remind everyone even on the happiest occasions we need to remember the sacrifice our active duty military is making, they had all the easter eggs dyed yellow for a -- for the iraq war. the first iraq war. and then -- >> the yellow ribbon concept to remember soldiers. >> support our troops. and then the second bush administration did something similar. they actually closed the grounds down for the -- one year for the easter egg roll and barred the general public and made it a special day that was just for active duty and reserve military members and their family.
and then it went back to being open to the general public again the year after that. but it was a really heartfelt gesture of support. >> let's move on to the truman years because they had to move out of the white house, as you said. the white house was completely torn apart. >> absolutely. >> in renovations. so how many years was it suspended during that period? and did they do anything for children during this time? >> well, it was suspended for all eight years of truman's presidency. and there were other easter egg rolls, smaller, less formal affairs, even neighborhood events, held elsewhere in the capital. there was one year it was temporarily relocated to the capitol grounds. one year only. >> they messed up the lawn again. >> they did. >> how much damage is there to the south lawn of the white house for these events? >> it's -- the nps doesn't -- the national park service, which is in charge of the care and management of the grounds and is one of the major folks that are involved with the easter egg
roll, they do an amazing job. there is an incredible amount of setup and takedown and cleanup afterward. but within a day or even less, you would never know. >> we were talking earlier about presidents that brought animals. the kennedys did that with caroline kennedy. what was their story? >> the kennedys were never actually in attendance at the white house easter egg roll. neither were the johnsons or the nixons, but that didn't stop the kids in the kennedy years from wanting to see tex and macaroni, play on the kennedy kid swing set and meet the kennedy kids. the usher at the white house and the police men that were those providing security had to explain, no, caroline and john john weren't there to meet them but send their regrets. >> and their pony. >> and their pony. >> i'm sure lots of photographs exist of macaroni the pony after all these years.
you told us the story of the petting zoo from the carters. let's move forward to the reagan administration. there's a wonderful connection between first lady nancy reagan and the white house easter egg roll. what is it? >> she actually attended the easter egg roll as a small child. >> no kidding. >> yes. >> she must have been keen to continue -- >> the reagans were the family that introduced the commemorative eggs which is now the official white house keepsake. and they also really brought the easter egg roll into kind of a modern era by introducing all manner of games and activities, brings in costumes, superheroes, cartoon characters, that type of thing. became a full-day event. >> and really what are the hours now? >> the hours are from, i believe, about 9:00 a.m. till dark. >> it lasts all day these days? >> and, but there are ticketed times so you're only allowed on
the grounds for a predetermined number of hours. i believe there's three times of entry. and that's just to accommodate as many people as possible. >> when were tickets added? >> tickets were added in the 20th century. they were needed because otherwise it was just too big of an event. back in 1905, there was a famous story about a child who -- by this point, you needed to have an adult companion to bring you onto the grounds and an adult couldn't come to the grounds without a child. so kids being smarter than adults a lot of the times started essentially buying out -- having parents buy their way onto the grounds with them. there's a famous story during the t.r. administration, a child made a small fortune, a dime at a time, doing that. >> no kidding. >> yeah. >> an early entrepreneur. >> absolutely. >> so we're talking about media progression, when did the white
house easter egg roll first go live streamed on the internet? >> that was in the clinton administration in the 1990s. >> how has social media changed it? i'm sure people are sending pictures or on the internet. >> absolutely. there are so many things going on from games to, of course, the easter egg rolls, reading activities with the children and with the benefit of social media, you can now see that in realtime instead of having to wait even, you know, just a few hours for an internet article to come up. it's literally instantaneous. >> amplifying the event over and over again. i wonder if any other countries around the world and their leaders have also replicated the easter egg roll since it works so well here in the united states. >> you know, that's a good question. i don't know, but i know that there are some presidential sites that host their own easter egg rolls every year. i was just in mentor, ohio, for a family birthday, the garfield historical site is hosting one this year.
we'll probably have some snow. >> let's talk about our most recent presidents. two terms of the obama administration. they had young children, themselves. how did the obamas use or host the white house easter egg roll? >> well, the president played basketball. huge fan of basketball. he played basketball with the children on the white house basketball court. and the first lady, michelle obama, really throughout her time as first lady was interested in promoting an active healthy lifestyle through good nutrition and exercise. and she started something called the let's move campaign in order to get kids to do that more readily. and they included that in the easter egg rolls during their years. they had an obstacle course and other just fun active games. >> so the most current president, the trump family, they've had one easter egg roll so far. what have you observed about how they're hosting it? >> sure.
well, with a little bit of a smaller sample size, they've also taken a really active involvement in the day's activities. the president and first lady last year started the very first easter egg roll race, themselves, by blowing on whistles. and were there to greet the winners of that particular race. and they've also been very active in promoting childhood literacy, by promoting -- by using a special book nook where authors will come in and read and enjoy time with the children. >> so when you worked on this book together, because we've really worked our way through the various presidents and their histories, what did you aim for and how did you work with mr. hutton on the illustrations? what was the feel that you were trying to get with this and who do you envision your readers to be? >> well, the readership we hope is literally everyone. that's why it's subtitled "a history for all ages." we'd like to appeal to young
readers, obviously, we'd also like it to appeal to parents and adults in general and especially for young children, we hope the parents will read the book with their children, read it to them. even the youngest children can enjoy the wonderful illustrations. as far as how john hutton and i worked together, he is the artistic genius. i can't even draw stick figures. but i had some ideas about what we wanted to do. we wanted to mention each president. each presidential administration. and i kind of put story boards together, i think we can make this look like this. and it was all very, very basic, and he turned into this amazing, amazing book. >> each illustration is a small work of art throughout the book. so as we close on this, what do you think people learn about american presidents, american
culture, through the white house easter egg roll? >> well, that history can and should be fun, and also that no matter what you think of any given president, there's always a good time to be had. >> and that presidents and children have gotten together since the earliest days of -- >> absolutely. >> -- our republic. >> and animals. >> thank you very much for telling us the long, long history and american society of the easter egg roll and onto 2018 version. >> it's been my pleasure. thank you. tuesday a look at the road to the white house 2020 as the ohio republican governor john kasich travels to new hampshire to speak at new england college. a live coverage from hennicer, new hampshire, starts on tuesday at 5:00 p.m. eastern on c-span.
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