President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was a fête to behold. On the evening of March 6, 1865 (two days after the inauguration), men escorted their ladies, one on each arm—the $10 ticket admitted three—up a grand staircase. They ascended to the top-floor hall of the Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., now the site of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.
There, according to estimates, some 4,000 revelers danced quadrilles, waltzes and Virginia reels. Surely, the energy in the room spiked when the president arrived with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, at 10:30 p.m. The president was dressed in a dapper black suit and white gloves. Mrs. Lincoln, with jasmine and violets woven in her hair, wore a white satin off-the-shoulder gown. But, the party reached a fever pitch at the stroke of midnight, when an elaborate buffet was served.
Oysters, roast beef, veal, turkey, venison, smoked ham, lobster salad and a seemingly endless display of cakes and tarts spread across a table 250 feet long. The hungry crowd charged the food, and the lavish event devolved into somewhat of a mess. “In less than an hour the table was a wreck…positively frightful to behold,” wrote the New York Times. Men hoisted full trays above the masses and took them back to their friends, slopping stews and jellies along the way. “The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake, and debris of fowl and meat,” reported the Washington Evening Star.
To better understand the meal, I discussed the ball’s bill of fare, or menu, held at the Library Congress, with Paul Freedman, a Yale University historian. Freedman has systematically studied thousands of menus from the 19th century. “I was just fascinated by the menus as documents in the history of food, but also for their design and what they said about people going out to dine,” says Freedman. “The 19th century is the era in which the restaurant spreads from France to the rest of the world. It is the period when the restaurant as we know it is invented.”
What did our forebears eat? Would modern diners recognize the dishes served at Lincoln’s inaugural ball? Click on the yellow tabs, within the document below, to read some of Freedman’s insights.