According to White House curator Bill Allman, the curious tradition of egg-rolling on the White House lawn originated in the mid-to-late 19th century. First lady Dolley Madison is sometimes credited with proposing the idea of a public egg roll around 1810, and several first families may have held similar events privately prior to 1872. Newspaper articles described the first public egg-rolling event as having occurred on the congressional grounds in 1872. In 1876, foot traffic from hordes of children and their families during an egg roll caused so much damage to the Congressional grounds that legislators were forced to pass the Turf Protection Law to prevent further damage. In doing so, they outlawed the future use of congressional grounds for public events.
Disappointed D.C. children had to wait two years before President Rutherford B. Hayes hosted the first official Easter egg roll on the White House grounds in 1878. Since then, nearly every presidential administration has hosted this special children’s event unless war or bad weather forced its cancellation or relocation to another venue. The egg roll was suspended from the White House grounds for 12 long years between America’s entry into World War II in 1941 and the end of Eisenhower’s White House renovations in 1953.
In addition to the traditional Easter egg roll, participants, usually including the president’s family, were treated to music, games, food, pony rides, souvenirs and a visit by the Easter Bunny. In 1969, First Lady Pat Nixon donned the Easter Bunny costume and, during Reagan’s two terms, Attorney General Edwin Meese’s wife, Ursula, wore the bunny costume six times. Ursula Meese thus earned the nickname of “Meester Bunny” in the Reagan White House. In 1974, President Nixon allowed organizers to borrow spoons for the egg roll from the White House kitchen.
Since its inception, the Easter egg roll has grown increasingly elaborate. In 1977, President Carter added a circus and petting zoo to the day’s entertainment. In 1981, Easter revelers could attend Broadway show performances or climb into the basket of a hot-air balloon tethered to the ground. During the Clinton administration, organizers started a second tradition of inviting individual states to send an egg decorated by one of their local artists to the White House for display.