Presidents Day may be celebrated the third Monday of every February, but George Washington’s actual birthday was Feb. 22. Although 18th-century birthdays were not the to-dos that they are today, the General being who he was, was often commemorated nonetheless.
As Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson points out:
In 18th-century England, as well as in her colonies, it was customary to celebrate the birthdays of the king and various members of the royal family. After the American Revolution, George Washington’s birthday came to substitute for those traditional celebrations, eventually becoming a national commemoration by 1832.
After the parades and ceremonies, the day would typically close with a ball in the evening and a late supper. In 1799, for example, George Washington recorded that he ‘Went up to Alexandria to the celebration of my birthday. Many Manoeuvres were performed by the Uniform [sic] Corps [sic] and an elegant Ball [sic] & Supper [sic] at Night [sic].’ The evening events were held that year at Gadsby’s Tavern on the corner of Cameron and Royal Streets.
It was customary not to start the festivities until the guest of honor had arrived, but Washington’s habitual punctuality meant that the birthnight balls he attended never had to start late. Many years after the event, Martha Washington’s grandson remembered one birthnight ball during the presidency, at which the ladies were wearing bandeaux on their heads, embroidered with the sentiment ‘Long live the president!’
The above 1876 engraving by Currier & Ives is titled “Presidential Reception in 1789. By General and Mrs. Washington.” It does not portray an actual birthnight celebration.