George Washington's Bicentennial Birthday Bash

The exterior of Gadsby's Tavern (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)
A photograph of the exterior of Gadsby's Tavern from around 1938 (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)

It was the largest organized “movement for patriotic celebrations” in United States history to that point.[1] That, to paraphrase a little, is how the Washington Post described the 1932 celebrations of George Washington’s 200th birthday. Across the country, parades, society meetings, and sermons honored Washington. Shopping events were met with Black Friday-level fervor, with some people reportedly taking out hotel rooms next to D.C.’s post office in order to get their hands on some special-edition bicentennial stamps.[2]

For the members of high society, costume balls provided a particularly exciting way to celebrate the first President’s birthday. All over the United States, from the original 13 colonies to Kansas and New Mexico, elite residents dressed up as colonial figures and danced to 18th-century music.[3] But no place could celebrate in quite the way that Alexandria could: by precisely reenacting Washington’s last birthday party at the venue where it originally occurred.

On his birthday in 1799, George Washington arrived at the steps of Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria with massive fanfare. Or, as the Washington Post it described it later, “the celebration…was a most pretentious one.”[4] Cavalry regiments, or dragoons, paraded Washington into the ballroom.[5] There, he was met by some of the most famous people of his time, including Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Dolly Madison.[6]

And so, as Washington’s 200th birthday approached, the Alexandria Committee of the Colonial Dames in the State of Virginia tried to recreate the scene as best they could, starting with vintage-looking invitations. Based on invitations to an 1817 birthnight ball (invitations to the original 1799 celebration likely couldn’t be found), the bicentennial birthnight ball’s invitations were handwritten in reddish-brown ink on what the Alexandria Gazette described as “antique-looking paper.”[7] Apparently they were a hit, as the Washington Post suggested there was “no doubt (that) one of these will serve as a model for the invitations of 2032.”[8]

At 10:45 p.m. on February 22, the bicentennial birthnight ball began when a distant descendant of George Washington entered into the Gadsby’s Tavern ballroom to “The President’s March.”[9] The faux former president then walked up to a dais and stood behind a portrait of Washington painted in 1794, which was similar to one that hung in the ballroom of the tavern in the 1799 celebration.[10]

True to the time it was replicating, all of the light came from candles and fire in the eight fireplaces at the tavern, giving the event what the Alexandria Gazette called “the atmosphere of bygone days.”[11] The revelers danced until 11:30 to colonial American songs played by two orchestras.[12] After that, they sat down for an elegant midnight supper. The menu was contemporary to early American food, as guests enjoyed their Virginia hams, whole roast pigs, and colonial jellied salads.[13]

Amongst the guests at the bicentennial ball were relatives of some of the 1799 attendees, and many wore family heirlooms as period clothing for the event. George Washington, for instance, was played by his great-great-great grand nephew, John Augustine Washington, after Col. Brantz Roszwell—another descendant of Washington who was initially slated to play the President—fell ill.[14] Anne Madison Washington played her ancestor, Dolly Madison; Mr. Richard C. Marshall played Chief Justice John Marshall; while Thomas and Martha Jefferson were played by their great-great-great grandchildren, Rosella Trist Burke and Robert Edwin Graham. And those were only the most notable names.[15]

The level of detail involved in the event and the names of the visitors quickly made the Gadsby’s Tavern ball the hottest ticket in town. Five hundred people, the capacity of the building, gobbled up tickets to the ball, preventing some descendants of original ball-goers from attending the affair.[16]

For the many people who were unable to attend, there were still ways of experiencing some of the bicentennial ball’s grandeur. On the big night, local radio station WJSV aired an hour-long live program about the ball.[17] For a week after the gala, people could visit Gadsby’s and see the portraits and décor that were displayed at the 200th anniversary event.[18]

The 1932 ball might have been the highlight of the season in Alexandria, but it wasn’t the end of reenacted birthday celebrations at Gadsby’s Tavern. As of 1962, The Washington Post reported that Gadsby’s yet again celebrated a costumed version of Washington’s birthday ball.[19]

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ “Bicentennial Stamp Profits,” Washington Post 5 January 1932.
  2. ^ “50,000 Stand In Line to Get New Stamps,” Washington Post 2 January 1932.
  3. ^ “Fancy Dress Colonial Balls Mark Opening of the Bicentennial,” Alexandria Gazette 22 February 1932.
  4. ^ “Gen. Washington’s Last Birthnight Ball Will Be Reenacted at Gadsby’s Tavern,” Washington Post February 1932.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ “Famous Birthnight Ball Reproduced,” Alexandria Gazette 22 February 1932.
  8. ^ “Gen. Washington’s Last Birthnight Ball Will Be Reenacted,” Washington Post February 1932.
  9. ^ “Famous Birthnight Ball Reproduced,” Alexandria Gazette.
  10. ^ Legion Post Invited to Gadsby’s Tavern,” Washington Post 25 February 1932.
  11. ^ “Brilliant Ball Held at Tavern,” Alexandria Gazette 23 February 1932.
  12. ^ “Famous Birthnight Ball Reproduced,” Alexandria Gazette.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ Those in the know might recognize John Augustine Washington's name. He was the grandson of John Augustine Washington III, the last person to own Mount Vernon. The younger John Augustine Washington's father, Lawrence, was the last male child born in Mount Vernon.  “Bicentennial Birthnight Ball in Gadsby’s Tavern,” Washington Post.
  16. ^ “Famous Birthnight Ball Reproduced,” Alexandria Gazette; Ibid.
  17. ^ “Famous Birthnight Ball Reproduced,” Alexandria Gazette; “Gen. Washington’s Last Birthnight Ball Will Be Reenacted,” Washington Post 21 February 1932; “Radio Programs,” Washington Post 22 February 1932.
  18. ^ “Reception is Held for Legion Groups,” Washington Post 27 February 1932.
  19. ^ “George and Martha Will Have a Ball Feb. 22 at Gadsby’s,” Washington Post 15 January 1962.