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Friday, January 18, 2013

Why the Chicken Really Crossed the Road: An Inaugural Tale

President Nixon’s 1973 Inaugural ball at the Museum
of History and Technology, January 20, 1973,
by Richard K. Hofmeister, Smithsonian Institution
Archives, Record Unit 285, Box 10,
Folder: 11, 73-518-14A or SIA73-518-14A.
This weekend DC plays host to the presidential inauguration. As visitors flock to the area, the Smithsonian will open its doors to museum goers and inaugural ball guests alike. The buildings are no stranger to inaugural events. As early as 1881, the Smithsonian’s  National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building) hosted its first Inaugural Ball for President James Garfield, even before the building was completed.  The museums provide a fascinating backdrop for such festivities, and Garfield’s ball began a trend that has continued to this day.

One particularly memorable experience occurred on January 20, 1973, as President Richard Nixon attended several official inaugural balls, including one at the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). Over seven thousand people, dressed in fine feather, filled the museum to celebrate. Lines were out the door, and the crowds had nowhere to dance. Despite the confusion and heat the room had a celebratory air and guests were excited to see the man of the hour.

Chicken that disrupted President Nixon’s 1973 Inaugural ball,
January 20, 1973, by Unknown, Smithsonian Institution Archives,
Record Unit 285, Box 10, Folder 12, SIA2009-0415 and 73-688-22A.
It seems, however, that people were not the only spectators anxious to catch a glimpse of the President. While guests danced the night away, a female participant became quite ruffled when a chicken flew into her one thousand dollar VIP box and began to assault her. Fortunately, then Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist, came to the disgruntled socialite’s rescue. He captured the bird and began to smooth the chicken’s feathers until it calmed down. He then returned the culprit to its home in the colonial barnyard exhibit of the Growth of the United States Hall.

The chicken, along with a few other fellow fowls, took up residence in the museum in 1969 to give a sense of realism to the American farm life exhibit.  The birds lived in the exhibit and according to museum staff, were usually quite docile. However, this little chicken must have had political ambitions and decided crossing the exhibit road to participate in the inaugural ball would be a fun adventure. Secretary Ripley remarked that the incident was “a real chicken caper” that certainly added to the excitement of the night.  Once again, a visit to the Smithsonian, whether a school trip or an inaugural ball, proved to be a unique adventure. 

Courtney Bellizzi, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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