For more than two centuries, Pages assisted Representatives with errands, relaying messages, and other tasks. Early on, Members appointed Pages from the Washington area, but by the 20th century, most were selected from congressional districts around the country. When teenaged Pages came to Washington, they often made their temporary home in a residence like Olive Smith’s house.
Mrs. Smith began renting rooms in the 1950s after her children moved out, and expanded the business after the death of her husband. At 101 5th Street, N.E., the house was a quick walk from the Capitol, making it an ideal spot for Pages with unpredictable hours and early mornings at the Capitol Page School. Up to 16 residents could live in the 10 available rooms. In 1966, a tenant paid $50 per month in rent. With so many boarders, Mrs. Smith came up with inventive ways to remember and communicate with residents. She used a complicated system of whistles based on room location and lodger seniority to alert Pages when their parents called. Former Page Robert Aagre recalled that Mrs. Smith also assigned each one a unique number in a ledger. Aagre was number 756 of approximately 1,300.
Away from home for a few months or even several years, Pages made a new home in their rooming house. As they became acquainted with fellow Pages, friends tried to live together. In 1943, 20 pages attempted to find a dwelling that could accommodate the entire group. “It would be swell if we could have our own fraternity and live together near the Capitol,” one eager 15-year-old said. At the time, the program was single-gender; not until the 1960s and ’70s did female, as well as African-American, students become a regular part of the Page community.
Some lodging houses provided meals for an extra fee, but Pages also tried to find tasty or convenient grub at other boardinghouses or cafeterias. Aagre noted that Mrs. Smith served dinners but “was not known for her cooking ability.” In his oral history, Myles Garrigan vividly describes the Southern food served at a different boardinghouse:Donnald K. Anderson, a former House Page and Clerk of the House, hopped a few doors down from his own boardinghouse to Mrs. Eberhardt’s for quick and filling evening meals. “It was $1.10 for dinner, which was eat-all-you-want-home-cooked food. Of course, you only had 30 minutes in which to eat it because she had to turn the table.”
While many Pages enjoyed the freedom of rooming-house living along with the salaries they earned, some adults, including Michigan Representative Ruth Thompson, worried that they might get into trouble. In a 1954 speech on the House Floor, Thompson sternly critiqued the eating habits of Pages who “have developed sallow complexions and probably a feeling of listlessness” from eating too much ice cream and candy away from the eyes of parents or guardians. Thompson even pointed to the boardinghouses as a symbol of dangerous influences over “many of the boys living in this neighborhood—not likely in those homes which are being restored—but in those old dilapidated houses which do not attract people of culture and discretion.” She suggested a dormitory to provide consistent supervision, nutrition, and education for Pages. One Page, who preferred rooming-house life over Thompson’s proposed residence hall, tersely judged: “It’s for the birds.”
As the issue of safety came up, blame was thrown around. Mrs. Smith pointed out that, if her house wasn’t in pristine condition or had broken items, it was usually caused by the Pages. She told a reporter in 1963 that the young residents threw darts at the ceiling and used lighter fluid to set a mantel on fire. “I have no power over these boys at all,” she sighed. Pages who worked for a year or two said that the ones appointed for only a month were the troublemakers. In response, a short-term Page from Arkansas shot back in 1964: “I think it’s the boys who stay longer who are trouble. If you are here for a month, it takes you a good two weeks to find out the places where you can get into trouble.”
Mrs. Smith sold her house and moved to Florida with her sister in the 1980s, around the time that a dedicated Page dormitory, supervised by House staff, put an end to rooming-house life.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 83rd Cong., 2nd sess. (February 16, 1954): 1851; Washington Post, October 3, 1943, February 23, 1954, December 1, 1963, February 8, 1964, and May 31, 1983.Follow @USHouseHistory