The Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article about President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, in March of 1865 — about a month before the Civil War ended and Lincoln was assassinated. (Presidential terms have only ended on January 20 since the 20th ammendment was ratified in 1933.) It hosted about 4,000 people and was a very late affair: carriages began arriving at 9pm, the president and his wife entered at 10:30, and dinner was served at midnight. It was buffet-style and, even though 300 people could serve themselves at the same time, the rush for all the men to fill up plates and take them back to their ladies resulted in a giant mess:
About the hour of 12, the Presidential party were escorted by a private entrance to privileged places. Soon afterward the doors were opened, and a throng of more than a thousand, who had collected at that end of the hall, poured into the supper-room. Of course, when three persons occupy the space barely sufficient for one, a “crush” is the result; and the crush which followed can better be imagined than depicted.
But this was not the worst feature. With that indecency of conduct and want of politeness and etiquette which characterizes many American people at table, and which is the certain accompaniment of a large crowd at a public supper, many gentlemen, and even some of our own sex who delight to be esteemed ladies, seized upon the most ornamental and least nutritious part of the table decorations, demolished them, carried the pieces off in handkerchiefs or crushed them under foot.
In less than an hour the table was a wreck; a few ornaments not destroyed were removed, and the array of empty dishes and the debris of the feast were positively frightful to behold.
The doors were now wide open, and hundreds of ladies in elegant silks, satins and velvets, and gentlemen in dainty broadcloth, surged and struggled back and forth. A few obtained something to eat, others very little, and many more only succeeded in ruining their toilets. As much was wasted as was eaten, and however much may have been provided more than half the guests went supperless. But it was a public supper; we were not much disappointed, and though the gentlemen who managed it may have been to blame for the want of room, the fact remains that the supper was a disaster, and detracted from the otherwise pleasant aspect of the occasion.
— from the New York Times report of the ball
The entire write-up of the ball in the Times is very detailed and interesting, so it’s worth reading. Finally, here’s what they were all starving for:
The Times journalist noted that the food was tasty, but that the “name of the cuisinier has escaped us, and it is not worth while to hunt it up now. Suffice it to say it was not Delmonico, therefore we did not expect perfection.”
From Smithsonian Magazine, via NPR