Until the 1930’s, Americans lined up to meet the nation’s President on New Year’s Day. Starting with George Washington and continuing until Herbert Hoover, the annual event was rarely canceled. The creation of the New Year’s Day Reception dates back to George Washington when he lived in the initial U.S. capital, New York City. In keeping with the town’s Dutch tradition of having neighborhood open house parties on New Year’s Day, Washington hosted a reception at the nation’s first Presidential Mansion located in lower Manhattan.
Washington DC was just opening for business in late 1800, after a ten-year building process. Designed and built practically from scratch from donated pieces of Virginia and Maryland, the new city was muddy, full of building debris, stray dogs, cats and pigs, unpaved streets, fields of weeds, and huge distances between neighbors. While the White House was nearing completion, President Adams temporarily lived at Tunnicliff’s City Hotel near the U.S. Capitol. He later moved into the Executive Mansion on November 1, 1800.
As Chief Occupant in the new President’s House in Washington, especially in a centennial year, 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. Thus, starting a tradition that would last 131 years!
Public Presidential New Year’s Day Receptions differed somewhat from President to President. The purpose was to express cordiality to the general public. The more populist Jefferson instituted shaking hands with those in attendance. 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 (pictured below with Military and Naval Aides who assisted in the reception).
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. By the time of Andrew Jackson (pictured below as he receives guests in the East Room in 1866), the population of Washington had grown from some 10,000 in 1800 to nearly 28,000 in 1830. Jackson, a man-of-the-people, attracted thousands of proletariat followers. Clothing was more rustic, manners more coarse, but the people still came to shake hands with Their Hero, who seemed pleased to shake hands with them.
But, the annual New Year’s Day Reception in 1863 is arguably the most important event in the reception’s history. Abraham Lincoln was President, and the Civil War was raging. It was a Thursday. Earlier that morning, a somber President, well aware of the momentous occasion, tweaked any final changes he wanted made and had the final copy of the Emancipation Proclamation prepared. Then at 11a.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. Hundreds of Northerners who had been active in anti-slavery efforts, some for a generation, had flocked to Washington for this welcome event. Thousands had lined Pennsylvania Avenue waiting to shake the President’s hand. His arm grew tired. His kid glove was stained by contact with thousands of hands. But everyone who came was welcome!
As time went on, the New Year’s Day Receptions became cumbersome and onerous for the President. Some, like Theodore Roosevelt (pictured below, a line of well-wishers waits at the North Entrance of the White House to greet President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905) who was naturally gregarious, perfected a handshake that firmly pushed the visitor along, while controlling the strength of the handshake itself. By 1900, the population of Washington DC was over 279,000, not counting visitors. By the twentieth century, the estimate was more than 9,000 attendees and was becoming annoying for the president, who complained of a sore arm and hand.
The line for the New Year’s Day Reception reached down the White House sidewalk, wound out beyond the gates, and continued around the block bordering the old State, War, and Navy building (now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) as anxious citizens attended the first New Year’s Day Reception to be held in eight years in 1922. Woodrow Wilson was the only President since Adams who did not hold the New Year’s Day Reception.
The last New Year’s 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 shake hands, 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.
No President since has sought to revive the old custom, and today, the logistical and security problems would make it completely impossible.
Presidential History Blog, https://featherfoster.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/the-white-house-new-years-day-reception/, obtained December 30, 2022.
The White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/galleries/new-years-day-receptions, obtained December 30, 2022.
The Virginia Gazette, https://www.dailypress.com/virginiagazette/va-vg-presidents-new-years-0101-20211231-4h5jej3bnbcatoijnu2oscppcy-story.html, obtained December 30, 2022.