Montpelier Mythbusters: Dolley Madison's Easter Egg Roll
One of the most oft-repeated yet ill-cited pieces of Madison lore suggests Dolley Madison instituted the famous Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. When the tale appeared in published monograph, it was often paired with such qualifying phrases as “according to tradition” or “as the story goes.” Generally, if cited at all, the footnote simply directs the reader to another twentieth century history of first ladies or on Easter itself, further adding to the confusion of the origins of this story.
According to Dolley biographer Ethel Stephens Arnett, it was son John Payne Todd who encouraged Dolley to have an Easter egg roll (although some assert it was an egg hunt). After he “heard or read about an egg hunt or roll” as practiced by early Egyptians, Payne encouraged his mother to inaugurate a similar tradition for “all of her little friends” in Washington, D.C. As Arnett tells the story, Dolley responded favorably to Payne’s suggestion and dyed hundreds of hard-boiled eggs with her own hands.1 Unfortunately, there is no period documentation—newspaper accounts, diary entries, letters, or otherwise—to support this fragment of Dolley lore. Furthermore, writers cannot even agree on the location of the inaugural egg roll/hunt; some allege it happened on the White House lawn while others claim an initial celebration on the lawn of the Capitol.
Most historians agree that it was under Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration that the annual Easter egg roll began when First Lady Lucy hosted the roll on the White House lawn in April 1878. This year the White house is celebrating 134 years of fun with its annual Easter egg roll on Monday, April 9.
1. Ethel Stephens Arnett, Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley (Greensboro: Piedmont Press, 1972), 281.