The first presidential inauguration held in Washington took place inside the Senate chamber in 1801 when a small group gathered to honor Thomas Jefferson. James Monore's inauguration was the first staged outdoors in 1817. Since then, changes in communication technologies and physical location have increased interest and participation in inaugurations.
How has the audience for presidential inaugurations changed since 1800?
James Monroe's 1817 inauguration was the first staged outdoors in Washington. This article from the Washington Gazette described the audience as "a great concourse of citizens and strangers." Some estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 people attended the inauguration, a crowd much larger than Jefferson's ceremony held inside the Senate chamber in 1801. Although the next inauguration was held indoors, inaugurations gradually became an outdoor ceremony.
The 1925 inauguration of Calvin Coolidge was the first broadcast on the radio. 20 radio stations aired the speech to an audience of approximately 23 million people. Radio microphones are visible beyond Coolidge's head in this photograph that shows an excited crowd lucky to secure seats for the inauguration.
This video shows the 1949 inauguration of President Truman, the first to be broadcast live on television. As the camera pans across the inaugural platform, you can see members of the press on a special stand in the crowds. Over ten million people tuned in to watch the inauguration; those without televisions went to theaters and libraries. Truman also worked to ensure that the inauguration was integrated; the inaugural gala included performances by Lena Horne and other African American artists, the first time non-white performers were invited to an inaugural gala.
For most of the 1900s, inaugurations were held on the east front of the Capitol facing the Supreme Court and Library of Congress. Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration was the first to face the National Mall. Inauguration organizers wanted to save money by using the Capitol's terraces instead of constructing a temporary platform. They also recognized that by turning to the Mall, the ceremony accommodated larger crowds. The audience growth is visible in this video of Reagan taking the oath of office.
Even after inaugurations shifted to the Mall side in 1981, portions of the Mall remained closed to the public until the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. This photo shows the crowds extending past the Washington Monument, including large screens that let those standing far from the capitol to see the ceremony. An estimated 1.8 million people attended the inauguration in person. To further expand the audiences for inaugurations, the 2008 broadcast was the first offering audio descriptions for the visually impaired and the first to include captioning on the webcast.