As Chief Occupant in the new President’s House in Washington, especially in a centennial year, John Adams believed it was the “people’s” house, and it was incumbent upon him, its first resident, to extend hospitality. Thus, on New Year’s Day, 1801, the doors were open to any and all persons in Washington who wished to come by, shake his hand and exchange greetings.
From 1801 until its end in 1932, the New Year’s reception at the White House was a tradition met with anticipation by diplomats, government officials, military officers, and the public alike. Everyone from the common citizen to the highest-ranking diplomat was welcomed to shake the President’s hand.
Public Presidential receptions differed somewhat from official or private ones. The purpose was to express cordiality to the general public. Refreshments were either very modest or not included. (Presidents were expected to pay for their guests’ refreshments out of pocket until the time of Calvin Coolidge.)
But over the years, the receptions became more elaborate. Details of the reception—floral decorations, dresses worn by the ladies, and musical selections—made front-page stories in the Washington newspapers. Spanning more than a century and a quarter and only cancelled a few times because of wars, illness or the president’s travel schedule, the New Year’s reception became a major event in the social life of the nation’s capital.
As the town grew, the New Year’s Day reception lines grew longer. And if a person, male or female, was properly dressed (most of them in their finest clothes) and willing to stand patiently in line, they were welcome. This was not true for slaves or free blacks, but after 1863, they were welcome.
The New Year’s Day reception of 1863 is arguably the most important. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was going into effect. It was a Thursday. Earlier that morning, a somber President, well aware of the momentous occasion, made any final changes he wanted and had the final copy of the Emancipation Proclamation prepared.
Then at 11 a.m., as customary, the Blue Room reception began, for high-ranking public officials and invited guests. A half hour later, the White House doors were opened to the public, and for the next three hours, the President duly shook hands with any and all who had waited in line. Mrs. Lincoln, who was still in mourning for their son Willie who had died less than a year earlier, knowing the importance of this particular day, came for an hour.
At three p.m. the public New Year’s Day reception ended, and the President moved to a different room to sign his carefully written full name to the Emancipation Proclamation.
By the early 20th century, New Year’s Day crowds swelled to more than 6,000, and a line on the sidewalk outside the White House snaked out beyond the gates and around the block bordering the old State, War, and Navy building (now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) With such huge crowds, It was becoming annoying for the presidents, who complained of a sore arm and hand. Then there was the other obvious problem– it had become a serious health concern. The cold, wet, damp January weather, with reception attendees standing outside, perhaps for hours, coughing and sneezing, chilled to the bone, was unhealthy.
The last New Years Day reception was held in 1932. Herbert Hoover had followed the protocol three times, but by 1933, whether it was from his own disinclination to press the flesh, or the unwieldy and unhealthy crowds, or even a perceived threat to his personal safety, since the Great Depression was gripping the country, he was “out of town” on New Year’s Day.
Yet, J.W. Hunefeld, a man who prided himself with being first in line for many years, waited forlornly at the White House gates in 1934, because “he wanted to make sure the president hadn’t changed his mind.”
No President since 1933 has sought to revive the old custom, and today, the logistical and security problems would make it completely impossible. But it began as a hospitable event held to welcome citizens to the President’s House, and before it became unwieldy, it was a special opportunity for attendees.