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White House - Latter-day Receptions And Handshaking

( Originally Published 1908 )

PRESIDENT JACKSON held public receptions which anybody might attend, with or without invitation. This custom was in accordance with the opinion that the Executive Mansion belonged to the people, and that therefor the people should have the privilege of entering the mansion at any time when the President have notice that he would be "at home." The result was that such a great number of people crowded into the White House, whenever a reception was held, that oftentimes those who had been formally invited could not get into the mansion at all.

From Jackson right down to McKinley the various Presidents made attempts to limit the number of persons who should attend the White House receptions. But all such attempts were in vain, the people continuing to pour into the mansion whether they held a card of invitation or not.

President McKinley, however, proceeded to take steps to correct the abuse that had been so long endured by other Presidents. He ordered that cards should be sent to certain persons, and that only those who held such cards should be admitted, and President Roosevelt made the reformation more pronounced by having cards of admission included in each invitation, which had to be shown to the attendant at the White House entrance on the nights of the receptions.

It had been the custom, previous to this time, to have one invitation include all receptions during the season. Under the reformation inaugurated by Mr. McKinley the cards of invitation specified which reception the guest was to attend. Mr.

McKinley, much more largely than any of his predecessors, invited members of Washington society, as well as those holding positions under our own or other Governments.

All these reforms were necessary to bring order to the Presidential receptions, where, before that time, chaos and confusion reigned whenever the President or his wife received.

President McKinley's Card Receptions

At the beginning of each social season in McKinley's time, in December of every year, invitations were sent out by the President and his wife for four receptions, one to meet the members of the Diplomatic Corps, another to meet the members of Congress, a third in honor of the army and navy officers, and the fourth for a public reception. These invitations were sent to personal friends, men and women in public life, representatives of prominent newspapers, and others who had in some way a claim to acknowledgment; but, although the invitation card read, "and Public Reception," it did not signify that only those who received that card were entitled to attend the latter reception. What it really did mean was that the friends of the President and his wife were invited to the White House to meet the ."public," which included themselves and everybody else. It was announced in the newspapers that the public would be received on a certain evening between the hours of nine and eleven, and then everybody who wished to do so went to the reception. Those who went early enough were able to get into "line" inside the White House lawn, and those who went later took up their position next to the last comer. As early as seven in the evening the line began to form. Then it lengthened and lengthened until it stretched far out along the pavement in front of the White House; then it divided into two portions at the two north gates, and the two lines extended down Pennsylvania Avenue for a quarter of a mile each way, which made half a mile of people standing three abreast, all in readiness to walk into the White House when the doors should be thrown open. This was done at promptly five minutes before nine, and then the crowd surged forward, three by three.

Besides the regular evening public reception, which was given every winter at the end of February, the wife of the President always gave an afternoon reception to the public in midwinter, when she was assisted by ladies of the Cabinet, but at these functions the President did not appear.

President Roosevelt Receives Thousands

Receptions at the White House in the Roosevelt administrations have been both numerous and elaborate. So great has been the attendance at the evening receptions to diplomats and the army and navy that often times the doorkeepers have counted as many as two thousand. Guests are admitted only upon presentation of a small colored card, a different color for each of the eight grand receptions and dinners, which, during a recent season, were as follows :

December 13, Thursday, Cabinet Dinner, 8 P.M.

January 1, Tuesday, New Year's Reception, 11 A.M. to 1:30 P.M.

January 3, Thursday, Diplomatic Reception, 9 to 10:30 P.M.

January 10, Thursday, Diplomatic Dinner, 8 P.M.

January 17, Thursday, Judicial Reception, 9 to 10:30 P.M.

January 24, Thursday, Supreme Court Dinner, 8 P.M.

January 31, Thursday, Congressional Reception, 9 to 10:30 P.M.

February 7, Thursday, Army and Navy Reception, 9 to 10:30 P.M.

At the instigation and invitation bf President Roosevelt one of the most notable and distinguished official gatherings ever assembled in the White House was called to order in the East Room at l0 o'clock on the morning of May 13, 1908. It was the national convention on the conservation of the national resources. The Governors were of a majority of the States and Territories present.

President Roosevelt gave a banquet for these guests.

Every Governor and acting Governor in the city was invited and a distinguished company from official life was bidden to meet the Governors. Sixty-eight guests, including the visiting delegates, sat around the President's board in the State dining-room. The doors of the White House were kept closed to the public during the three or four days of the convention. At the conclusion of the convention Mrs. Roosevelt gave a large garden party to the delegates.

President Lincoln's "Monster" Reception

All of President Lincoln's receptions have been described many times by many different guests who were present. Of the first reception held by the great liberator at the White House one historian says :

"The oldest frequenters of the Executive Mansion declare that they do not recollect ever to have seen so many people pass through the house at any previous levee. Some of the officers of the house who served Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Pierce say they never saw anything approaching it in numbers, and that it never was excelled in brilliancy. An hour before the doors of the house were opened the great driveway was blockaded with carriages and the sidewalks and approaches to the White House were thronged with ladies and gentlemen, anxiously awaiting an opportunity to enter and pay their respects to the President and Mrs. Lincoln. At eight o'clock the doors were opened and the house was soon filled. By half-past eight the crowd inside was so intense that it being impossible to pass out of the door, owing to the large numbers outside waiting for admission it was found necessary to pass the ladies and gentlemen who desired to retire out through the windows. This mode of exit lasted nearly an hour, especially for the gentlemen.

"From eight until half-past ten, Mr. Lincoln took the position usually occupied by the President at receptions, and, during the whole time, did not have a resting spell of one minute, but shook hands continually, a large part of the time shaking the gentlemen with the right hand and the lady with the left, or vice versa, as the case might be, in order to facilitate the movements of the multitude.

"Mrs. Lincoln occupied a position to the immediate right of the President, and next to her husband, was the target for all eyes. Dr. Blake, present Commissioner of Public Buildings, filled his usual position of introducing to the Queen of the White House such as desired to be presented. Mrs. Lincoln bore the fatigue of the two-and-a-half-hour siege with great patience. She appeared remarkably well and performed her part of the honors, in response to the grand ovation paid to her as well as to her honored husband, with that propriety which consistently blends all the graces with an unreserved dignity.

"At half-past ten o'clock, Mrs. Lincoln leaning upon the arm of an ex-member of Congress from Illinois,much to the chagrin of Senators and Representatives, who were dressed and dying to have that honor themselves proceeded through the Blue Room to the East Room. The President followed, attended by one of his younger sons. The crowd in the East Room, although very great, made way for Excellency and lady and suite. They passed round the room once, the head of the President peering above all the rest, so that he could be distinctly seen at any time from any point. He was dressed in plain black broadcloth, and wore white kids. Mrs. Lincoln was attired in a rich Magenta colored brocade silk, with raised figure flounces, trimmed not extravagantly with rich point lace. Her ornaments were chiefly diamonds and pearls.

"Robert Lincoln was not present, having returned to his collegiate studies at Cambridge.

"The universal impression is that old Abe's first public reception at the White House has been a triumphant success. Everybody seems pleased, except those who got badly squeezed in the crowd, and a few who lost their coats and hats or got them exchanged, as is always more or less the case at the levees."

How President Hayes Entertained

On January 13, 1884, President Hayes gave a notable reception, the first of that season, and a brilliant success.

"The vestibule and parlors," says one story of the event, "were draped with the nation's colors. The President and Mrs. Hayes stood in the Blue Parlor, the latter dressed becomingly in a suit of garnet silk and velvet. The callers were introduced to the President by Mr. Webb and to Mrs. Hayes by Colonel Case. he occasion was more like a brilliant private party than a miscellaneous reception. The East Parlor into which the guests passed after saluting the President and hiswife was a scene of lively sociability. At ten the President and Mrs. Hayes retired from the parlors, the Marine Band stationed in the vestibule played `Home, Sweet Home', and the crowd of carriages in waiting bore multitudes of guests away from a more than ordinary attractive Tuesday evening reception.

"The Vice-President, William A. Wheeler, with Republican simplicity, came on foot under an umbrella."

Handshaking by the Presidents

More than one President has said, after leaving the White House, that one of the hardest duties he had to perform. was that of handshaking. Only those who have stood and shaken the hands of thousands of persons can understand what a drain the task is upon the physical strength.

Each President has had his own peculiar, individual way of grasping the hand of a guest of callers. Some Presidents used first the right hand and then the left, alternately, in shaking hands. Others used only the right hand. Some wore a glove on the left hand, others wore no glove at all.

It has been estimated that, at the New Year's receptions at the White House, Presidents have shaken hands with as many as two thousand persons per hour. In the case of President McKinley, it is. said that he shook hands with fully twenty-five hundred persons each hour during his . last New Year's reception.

During the celebration of the Washington Centennial, in 1900, one newspaper recorded the fact that President McKinley, at the White House, broke all records by clasping 4,816 palms in one hour and forty-five minutes. The account says :

"Last night, at the public reception held at the White House for visitors to the jubilee festivities, he grasped and vigorously shook the hands of 4,816 people. All this was done in the record-breaking time of one hour and forty-five minutes, the average number of hands per minute grasped by the President being forty-six.

"This record is probably destined to stand for some time, as the Executive will have no more public functions till next winter.

"At last night's reception Secretaries Long, Gage and Hay, three members of the Cabinet, started in to duplicate the feat of the President to shake hands with every person attending the reception but all three were compelled to abandon the idea. Secretary Gage lasted about twenty minutes and the others only a little longer."

President McKinley and his wife always seemed to be perfectly happy and pleased to see the great multitudes that called at the White House. The President always took great delight in shaking hands with the people. He told Doorkeeper Pendel that he took more delight in shaking hands with the people than with those at the State dinners. It seemed to be a great gratification to him to meet the masses.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, just before his inauguration, while he was President-elect, shook hands with so many people that he suffered severe pain in his right arm for several weeks. During that period he had the temerity to issue the following statement for publication :

"Mr. Hayes has had so much fatigue to go through in shaking hands during the last five or six months, and more especially since his departure from home that his arm has become painfully affected by it and he is obliged to decline that mode of saluting his visitors."

Lincoln Blisters His Fingers at a Reception

At one of the White House receptions, Mr. Lincoln shook hands with so many people that next day his own hands were covered with blisters. The incident is related by Doorkeeper Pendel, in his book on the White House, as follows :

"I crowded my way through the hallway where the jam of people was very compact, into the Blue Parlor, with a glass of water for Mr. Lincoln. He drank it, and seemed to enjoy it very much. The perspiration was just rolling down his face as he grasped the hands of the passing throng, as though he had been splitting rails as of yore. Everything passed off very nicely that night, and next morning, the Sabbath, Simon Cameron called upon the President.

"Mr. Cameron was received in the Blue Parlor. After awhile they came out and stood in the grand corridor opposite, engaging in earnest conversation. The President said `Cameron, something occurred to me last night at the reception that never did before'. He held his hands up and said, `Cameron, between every one of these fingers is a blister from the shaking of hands'. After one term in the White House, and numerous receptions, the President had never experienced anything like this before."



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