McKinley’s reception season was planned
Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.
December 1897 was the start of the social season in Washington, D.C., and it lasted until the end of February 1898. Receptions and dinners, both large and small, were the hallmark of the season. The affairs took place in a variety of locations, from the White House to the homes of government officials, members of the diplomatic delegations and private citizens.
The 1897-98 social season began on a somber note. The White House was observing a 30-day mourning period because of the death of President William McKinley’s mother in December 1897. All social functions at the White House were canceled. The annual New Year’s Day White House open house was canceled for the first time in many years.
The White House traditionally also hosted four receptions from December to February. The guest lists included the diplomatic delegations, the Cabinet, the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy officers and prominent Washington residents.
There was no limit to the number of receptions the invited guests could attend, which resulted in stretching the White House to its capacity.
There were as many as 3,000 people who attended each reception. The visitors upon entering the White House discovered there were not enough coat and hat racks for their wraps. The floors creaked from all of the weight. The guests were funneled into a narrow, hot and stuffy hallway that resulted in many guests fainting before meeting the president.
McKinley knew an invitation to the White House social affairs was a cherished ticket for members of Washington, D.C., society. He delegated the responsibility for the receptions to his personal secretary, John Porter, and his aide, Col. William Bingham, who were charged with the task of improving the guests’ experience at the White House.
Bingham and Porter determined the maximum number of guests the White House could comfortably accommodate was 1,000.
They determined to hold the guest list to 1,000 per reception and to limit guests to one reception. The guests would be invited to one of four social affairs honoring the diplomatic delegations, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court, military officers and the prominent citizens of Washington, D.C.
Many were outraged they would be limited to attending one of the parties. The invitations even specified what reception they were to attend.
The guests who arrived for the first event Jan. 16, 1898, enjoyed the changes. There was a shorter line even with only one entrance for guests to enter. There was a White House staffer to check names off the invitation list. There were coat and hat racks for 1,280 guests. The White House was sparkling clean and decorated with many flower bouquets. The floors did not sag because extra support posts had been added. The invitees entered the Blue Room where the president and Mrs. McKinley and Vice President Garret Hobart greeted them.
The first reception was a success with an estimated 2,000 people in attendance. The reason for the large number of guests was that President McKinley instructed the staff not to turn anyone away, even those without an invitation.
The McKinleys hosted two other receptions in January and February 1898. The fourth social affair was canceled because of the sinking of the battleship Maine.
Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.