On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked the short distance from his boardinghouse to the nearby Capitol Building to take the oath of office as president of the United States. At a joint session of Congress convened in the Senate Chamber, he became the first president inaugurated in the new federal city of Washington. The government had moved from Philadelphia just months before, and Jefferson's capital was a city of unfinished buildings and muddy roads.
As the nation grew in size, railroads cut travel time and presidential inaugurations increased proportionately in scope. Barely a thousand people attended Thomas Jefferson's 1801 inauguration, but in 1853 a crowd of 20,000 gathered on the East Front of the Capitol to watch Franklin Pierce become the 14th president of the United States. By Pierce’s time, the emergence of the illustrated weekly newspaper also brought the inauguration into the homes of people around the nation. A new technique in the engraving process enabled such publications as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly to publish images of inaugural festivities and give them wide distribution within a week. By cutting a wooden engraving block into several pieces, numerous artisans could work on a single image at once, drastically reducing production time.
This exhibit features the historic engravings in the U.S. Senate Collection that depict inaugural festivities at the Capitol and around Washington, D.C. It begins with the 1853 inauguration, when the great 19th century weekly news magazines began to come into their own, and ends with 1905, a time when photographic techniques had largely overtaken the use of engraved images in news periodicals.
Click on the images at right to view the historical print collection.