When the Washington Easter Egg Roll Was Chaos

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The White House Easter Egg Roll is upon us again, with its usual lighthearted 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 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 its 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.

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 Senate Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, Justin Morrill, admonished him “not to have it botched.”

It was on to 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.”

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