University Inn Annex of the Eagle Hotel

“University Inn, circa 1840s-1850s: Scan 13.” The North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. Wilson Library.

When and where the President dined while he visited Chapel Hill

In the Summer of 1847, President James K. Polk made a visit to Chapel Hill to deliver the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. According to his personal diary kept at the time, President Polk and his party, which he described as “a long train of carriages,” traveled from Raleigh to Chapel Hill on the morning of Monday, 31 May 1847, eventually reaching the town at 6:00pm that evening.[1] The president stayed in Chapel Hill from Monday until after the university’s commencement ceremony on the evening of Thursday, 3 June 1847, when he travelled overnight to Raleigh to begin his journey back to Washington, D.C. Pictured above is the University Inn annex of the Eagle Hotel where the President stayed—and dined—during his three nights in Chapel Hill, photographed after President Polk’s visit in the late 1840s or early 1850s. There is a plaque located on the portico of the annex just above the doorway that commemorates this visit, shown in the picture above.[2] The annex was constructed after Eagle Hotel owner Nancy Hilliard purchased the property in 1846. While the hotel and annex buildings no longer exist, it would have been located roughly where Graham Memorial Hall stands on McCorkle Place today.[3]

During President Polk’s visit to Chapel Hill, his accounts of his daily activities—including his meals—were kept rather meticulously with regard to the time of day. It is notable that on Wednesday, 2 June, the President describes having “dinner” at 2pm. The following day, 3 June, the president says, “These [commencement] exercises commenced between 10 and 11 o’clock. About 1 o’clock the [University] President announced that there would be a recess of 1 ½ hours. I returned to the Hotel and took dinner.”[4]

As most Americans and Europeans did in the mid-19th Century, President Polk ate a meal he referred to as “dinner” in the mid-afternoon, usually between 1 and 3 o’clock. Prior to the “invention” of lunch, this mid-afternoon dinner was usually preceded by a light snack around midday rather than a full meal. By the end of the 19th Century, “lunch” had developed as a distinct midday meal, as “supper” (later universalized around many parts of the United States as “dinner”) became an evening meal of its own.[5] These material cultural practices of the President of the United States in Chapel Hill during this period are indicative of similar practices taking place among the broader population in the region, and their significance should be remembered accordingly.



[1] James K. Polk and Milo Milton Quaife, “Monday, 31 May.” The diary of James K. Polk during his presidency, 1845 to 1849, now first printed from the original manuscript in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society vol. 3 (1847) (Chicago, A.C. McClurg & Co., 1910), pp. 44.

[2] “University Inn, circa 1840s-1850s: Scan 13” The North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. Wilson Library.

[3] Bernard Lee Bryant, Occupants and Structures of Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at 5 year intervals, 1793-1998 (Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill Historical Society, 1999), pp. 34-37.

[4] James K. Polk and Milo Milton Quaife, pp. 48.

[5] Margaret Visser, “Taking Note of Our Surroundings.” The Rituals of Dinner (Toronto, Harper Collins, 1991), pp. 216-229. Ebook.



Caption by Adam Hasan