Party Like It’s 1881: President Garfield’s Inaugural Ball

Nothing says, “Welcome, Mr. President,” like 3,000 gas lights and a big hulking statue

Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building decorated for James Garfield’s inaugural ball, complete with string light garlands and patriotic buntings. Smithsonian Institution Archives

Nothing says, “Welcome, Mr. President,” like 3,000 gas lights and a big hulking statue. At least, that is what America decided in 1881, the year James Garfield was sworn into office. On a snowy March 4, the Smithsonian’s spanking new Arts and Industries Building hosted an inaugural ball for the country’s 20th president after he won the seat by a slim margin over Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock. Though the weather kept many people from witnessing the inauguration itself (including Garfield’s lengthy inaugural address), more than 7,000 well-dressed citizens still trekked to the big party. Decorations included elaborate flag displays, garlands of lights strung from the ceiling, a temporary wooden floor, 10,000 bins for hats and coats and, in the museum’s rotunda, a huge female “Statue of America.”

According to a flyer for the ball (pictured below), the decor was “artistic, munificent, and attractive, embellished by the coats-of-arms of the different States, handsomely festooned with State flags and seals.”

The lady America, the flyer notes, was “illustrative of peace, justice, and liberty.” The statue’s uplifted hand held an electric light, which was “indicative of the skill, genius, progress, and civilization of the 19th century.”

The ball was not only an important political event, but a significant milestone in the Smithsonian’s history. It was the first public event ever held at the iconic museum, which was undergoing the final stages of construction for its opening in October (The Arts and Industries Building is currently closed and undergoing a major renovation.). Exhibits had yet to be installed in the museum, so no one had to worry about relocating priceless artifacts so that Garfield could spend an evening dancing.

Smithsonian museums have since hosted inaugural balls for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush and Clinton, as well as “unofficial” balls for Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama. (The building that is now the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery also hosted a ball for Lincoln’s second term in 1864.) The styles of these celebrations have changed with the times, so check out the pictures below from Smithsonian’s photo archives to see the late 19th century’s patriotic zeal for a president who, sadly–thanks to an assassination attempt and some poor doctors—would only remain in office for only 200 days.

The “Statue of America” in the building’s rotunda. Her light is ”indicative of the skill, genius, progress, and civilization of the 19th century.” Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

The southeast balcony. Carved plaques decorate the entrance to a very patriotic spiral staircase. Image Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

An engraving of the event by architects Cluss and Schulze. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

A flyer, or “broadside,” for “The Grand Fete to Garfield and Arthur at the National Museum Building.” The top image is a plat of the building and its grounds, and the bottom is an image of the building’s exterior. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

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