On January 1, 1801, the first public reception was held in the President's House, and a democratic social custom began. From 1801 until its end in 1932, the New Year's Reception at the White House was a tradition met with anticipation by diplomats, government officials, military officers, and the public alike. Everyone from the common citizen to the highest-ranking diplomat was welcomed. By the early 20th century, crowds swelled to more than 6,000, and a line on the sidewalk outside the White House snaked out beyond the gates and around the block bordering the old State, War, and Navy building (Eisenhower Executive Office Building).
Year after year details of the reception—floral decorations, dresses worn by the ladies, and musical selections—made front-page stories in the Washington newspapers. Spanning more than a century and a quarter and only cancelled a few times because of wars, illness or the president's travel schedule, the New Year's Reception became a major event in the social life of the nation's capital. The newspapers delighted in coloring their annual review of the reception with anecdotes. During the Great Depression, one man mistook the line of people waiting at the White House for a bread line. President Herbert Hoover held the last New Year's Day reception in 1932. Yet, J.W. Hunefeld, a man who prided himself with being first in line for many years, waited forlornly at the White House gates in 1934, because "he wanted to make sure the president hadn't changed his mind."