The term "mall" originally meant a place where people played pall-mall, a game similar to croquet. By the mid 1700s it had come to mean a tree-lined park where people went to walk and socialize. In the 1790s, the Commissioners of the District of Columbia and Andrew Ellicott used the term to refer to L'Enfant's planned "Grand Avenue" between the Capitol and the Potomac. During the 1800s, it was sometimes called a "mall" but also just "the public grounds." The term "Mall" became the accepted name in the 1900s. In 1902, the McMillan plan officially described it as "The National Mall."
Why is this space called a "Mall"?
These mallets and ball were used to play pall mall in England during the late 1700s. The game was played on a rectangular grass lawn with two iron hoops stuck in the ground at either end. Players tried to get the ball through the hoops in as few moves as possible. The playing field was called a mall.
This illustration shows the Mall next to Saint James's Park in London, near the Palace of St. James and today's Buckingham Palace. In the late 1600s, King Charles II played pall-mall in the area with his courtiers, which is why it was called a mall. In the 1700s it became a very fashionable park where elite Londoners strolled. Along with Saint James's Park, the Mall in London may have inspired not only Pierre Charles L'Enfant in the 1790s but also Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. one hundred years later.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe drew this plan for a possible location of a national university near the White House in 1816. Although he describes the area as the "west end of the public appropriation," he notes that the area is "called the Mall." While there was not a consistent name for the area, "mall" was always among the options.
In the middle 1800s, some residents may have been aware that there was a mall in Washington, but not known exactly where it was. According to Freeman Hunt, who wrote this 1848 article about the capital city, even some Congressmen did not realize that the land between them and the Potomac River was intended by the city's founders to be a grand park. Hunt was one of the first authors to describe the mall in Washington as a national mall, meant not just for the residents of the city but for the entire nation.
The McMillan Plan from the early 1900s is one of first documents to name this space, "The National Mall." The plans' authors wanted to create L'Enfant's vision for a grand avenue of open space stretching west from the Capitol. At the time, the Mall looked like it contained a few small, forested parks. As the McMillan plan was implemented during the 1900s, those smaller areas were cleared to create the great open space we now know as "the Mall."