Saturday, January 26, 2013

Six Thousand People Clamoring for their Clothes!

Arriving at Grant's first inaugural ball

This account of Ulysses S. Grant's 1869 inaugural ball comes from the reminiscences of Mary Clemmer, published in 1873, just after Grant's second inaugural ball. Consider that Clemmer might have exaggerated the discomforts, to make the book that much more interesting.

Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural ball took place in a temporary structure, and was probably quite comfortable given the early spring weather, the crowd of partygoers and the amount of dancing. Lincoln's second inaugural ball in 1865, was near the end of a long, grinding war, and it took place in the model room of the U.S. Patent Office. It probably did not involve as many guests or as much dancing as Lincoln's first.

President Grant's first inaugural ball was held in the Treasury building. From this account, it doesn't seem to have been a big enough space for the attendees. It seems that the crush of attendees and the lack of dancing led to the decision to erect a temporary structure for Grant's second inaugural ball.

UNTOLD time, and trouble, and sixty thousand dollars were expended on the last inauguration ball building, and yet there was something the matter with the inaugural ball. There is always something the matter with every inauguration ball.

When I wish to think of a spot especially suggestive of torments, I think of an inauguration ball. There was the one before the last, held in the Treasury Building. The air throughout the entire building was perforated with a fine dust ground till you felt that you were taking in with every breath a myriad homoeopathic doses of desiccated grindstone. The agonies of that ball can never be written. There are mortals dead in their grave because of it. There are mortals who still curse, and swear, and sigh at the thought of it. There are diamonds, and pearls, and precious garments that are not to their owners because of it.

The scenes in those cloak and hat rooms can never be forgotten by any who witnessed them. The colored messengers, called from their posts in the Treasury to do duty in these rooms, received hats and wraps with perfect facility, and tucked them in loop-holes as it happened. But to give them back, each to its owner, that was impossible. Not half of them could read numbers, and those who could soon grew bewildered, overpowered, ill-tempered and impertinent under the hosts that advanced upon them for cloaks and hats.

Picture it! Six or more thousand people clamoring for their clothes! In the end they were all tumbled out "promiscuous” on the floor. Then came the siege! Few seized their own, but many snatched other people's garments—anything, something, to protect them from the pitiless morning, whose wind came down like the bite of death. Delicate women, too sensitive to take the property of others, crouched in corners, and wept on window ledges; and there the daylight found them.

Carriages, also, had fled out of the scourging blast, and the men and women who emerged from the marble halls, with very little to wear, found that they must "foot it" to their habitations. One gentleman walked to Capitol Hill, nearly two miles, in dancing pumps and bare-headed; another performed the same exploit, wrapped in a lady's sontag.

Poor Horace Greeley, after expending his wrath on the stairs and cursing Washington anew as a place that should be immediately blotted out of the universe, strode to his hotel hatless. The next day and the next week were consumed by people searching for their lost clothes, and General Chipman says that he still receives letters demanding articles lost at that inauguration ball.

Mary Clemmer, Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital, as a Woman Sees Them, Hartford, Ct : A. D. Worthington & co., 1873 p. 279-280.)

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