Congress Works It Out at the House Gym

Representatives Albert Vestal, Fred Britten, Fred Purnell in the House Gym/tiles/non-collection/1/1-12-PA2014_09_0045web.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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In 1920, (from left) Representatives Albert Vestal, Fred Britten, Fred Purnell, and Sydney Anderson were sitting, but not sedentary, Members in the new House Gym.
Representatives Fred Britten and Dan Reed made a New Year’s resolution in 1920: Get in shape. But first, they had to build a gym for Members of Congress.

In the previous century, being a Member of Congress was a physically active profession. The Los Angeles Times explained that “oratory gave the legislator all the exercise he needed.” Moving around and swinging their arms and fists as they addressed the House, Representatives found that their daily tasks kept them fit. “Men like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay used to get up a good sweat every time they addressed the House. Then they would take a plunge in the Potomac and a rub down, and so keep in the best of trim,” the Times continued. By the 20th century, however, congressional oratory style had changed. Instead of swinging their fists, sweating, and plunging into the Potomac, House Members did a lot more sitting, becoming “the sedentary men par excellence.” Representative Reed agreed that sitting Members were sitting too much, with fatal results: “It is a lamentable fact that during this Congress we have had 14 deaths,” he sadly explained on the House Floor in 1921.

Representative Fred Purnell/tiles/non-collection/1/1-12-PA2014_02_0002aweb.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Representative Purnell blew off some steam with the punching bag.
Led by Britten, a champion boxer, Reed and other Members formulated a plan for a gym in the House Office Building, now known as the Cannon House Office Building. One hundred and forty Representatives chipped in $10 each to buy equipment. The gymnasium, pictured in these photos, contained plenty of tools for a serious workout: punching bags, rowing machines, horizontal bars, dumbbells, medicine balls, weight pulleys, a steam room, and an indoor golf course. Britten also planned to have classes, scheduled only in the morning “due to the embarrassment which might result from a roll call interrupting an afternoon class, dragging nearly naked statesmen from their violent physical exertions, forcing them to dress hurriedly, dash over to the Capitol and answer to their names.”

The boxing gloves and fencing foils also gave Members a way to work out their aggression. After complaints that Congressmen were getting into physical brawls in the Capitol, Representative Florence Kahn suggested that “if they want to fight it would be a good idea for them to go to the gymnasium and have it out like men should.” Indeed, only male Representatives used the House gym until 1963, when a fitness room for women was built in new Rayburn House Office Building.

Calvin Coolidge and Frederick Gillett at the House Gym/tiles/non-collection/1/1-12-Coolidge_Gillett-_LCweb.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge (right) and Speaker Frederick Gillett dressed up to work out at the House Gym.
When the New House Office Building, now called the Longworth House Office Building, opened in 1933, it included a new gym for Members. By the 1930s, a different perspective on exercise had taken hold—exercise by machine. Instead of lifting all those weights and getting sweaty, machines could do it for the Members instead. Britten hoped that the new gym would have electrified exercise machines that work out every part of the body by vibration: just step inside, sit still, and the machine would vibrate the fat away. Britten asked the Appropriations Committee for $10,000 to fund this modern vision of exercise, but Chairman Joe Byrns wisely refused.

As with the gym in the Old House Office Building, Member contributions funded the equipment, so it was not nearly as futuristic as Britten dreamed. The new gym did have some fitness machines, including an electric horse, treadmill, and an electric belt reducer, which was “very popular since it does the work.” Gym director Pete Henderson made it his mission to bring straying, sedentary Members back to the fitness fold. Under Henderson’s direction, Members channeled their competitive urges and got their exercise through games. Paddleball, paddle tennis, badminton, basketball, baseball, and darts were all games that Members played for exercise in the 1930s and ’40s. Henderson also gave health and fitness advice, including his rule that no man older than 45 should ever jump rope.

The House gym was considered one of best in the country, and was used by more than half the House after relocating to the Longworth Building. Being fitter and healthier, and blowing off steam in the gym rather than in the Capitol, certainly seemed like a good idea. However, it might also have been a bit too engrossing, or perhaps just bad luck: The Washington Post noted that most regular gym-goers lost their seats in the 1934 elections.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1921; Washington Post, April 18, 1938 and January 29, 1943.

This is part of a new monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.