Before moving into the president's house in Philadelphia in 1791, President George Washington ordered that the straight rear walls of the main two rooms be rebuilt into a semi-circular form, or bows. The bowed shape apparently worked well for the “levees” or formal receptions that President Washington conducted on a regular basis. These bowed walls may just be the inspiration for the oval rooms in the White House.
During his presidency George Washington received only gentlemen guests and only on Tuesday afternoons between 3:00pm and 4:00pm. First Lady, Martha Washington, received guests of both sexes on Friday evenings, between 8:00pm and 10:00pm.
The levee, a tradition borrowed from the English court, was a formal occasion to allow men of prominence to meet the president. Picture these men in their formal suites, silver buckles, and powdered hair. President Washington wore black velvet on official occasions.
Here’s how a levee worked. An invited guest would enter the room and walk over to the president who was standing before the fireplace. He would then bow as a presidential aide made a quiet announcement of his name. The guest would then move to a place along the perimeter of the room. After fifteen minutes the doors were closed and the group would assemble into a formal circle.
President Washington would walk around the circle, addressing each man by his name from memory, of course, offering a pleasant greeting and often a remark with a political message. He bowed to each man but he never shook their hands.
When the president had rounded the circle, he would return to his place by the fireplace. And there he would stand until, at a signal from an aide, each guest approached him, one by one, bowed without saying anything, and left. A short but formal visit with the president.
There are four oval rooms in the White House.
Taken from an article offered online by the White House Historical Society
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