This month’s Edition for Educators focuses on an everyday tool with a rich tradition in the history of the House of Representatives: the gavel. Gavels have special significance in the House, where they have many purposes: as instruments of order and decorum, as symbols of power, and sometimes as souvenirs. Presiding officers of the House may use many gavels during a typical congressional session—all of which are made on-site at the Capitol. Each, in its own right, could tell a unique tale. Following are a few examples.
The Speaker’s Broken Gavels
June 22, 1906
On this date, Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon of Illinois broke a gavel while putting the House into the Committee of the Whole for further consideration of a bill. The Speaker banged the gavel hard enough to knock off the head, which landed between the clerks on the lower tier of the rostrum.
Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas Receives a 400-Pound Gavel from his Constituents
February 29, 1936
On this date, Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas received a unique gift from his Hidalgo, Texas, constituents: a 400-pound gavel. Garner received this “unbreakable” gift after shattering many other gavels during his tenure in the 72nd Congress (1931–1933).
Declaration of War Gavel
On December 11, 1941, the House approved declarations of war against Axis Powers Germany and Italy. Below, Reading Clerk Irving Swanson recounts how Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas presented him with the gavel used that day.
Gavels for the Speaker
Gus Cook, an engineer at the U.S. Capitol, hands over an armload of gavels to Speaker Sam Rayburn in anticipation of the House’s return from its 1943 summer recess.
Gavel of the Clerk of the House
The first day of a Congress is mainly business, with a side of tradition. Since 1999, this gavel, known as the Clerk’s Gavel, is taken out of storage for a single day to begin, or “gavel in,” the new Congress. Initially, the Clerk marked this particular gavel with scotch tape as a reminder to use it to open the following Congress.
Rayburn Shows Off His Gavels
A few weeks before the 80th Congress (1947–1949) was opened by a new Republican majority, outgoing Speaker Sam Rayburn, a Democrat, contemplated what it would be like to take up the gavel again. Representative Rayburn regained the Speakership in the 81st Congress (1949–1951) when Democrats regained control of the House.
Chairman Portrait of Schuyler Otis Bland
Coast Guard Specialist First Class Sandor Klein painted this portrait of Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee chairman Schuyler Otis Bland. The artist portrays Bland in his office, standing with a globe and gavel, the Capitol visible through the window behind him. Gavels are typical symbols of a committee chair’s authority in commissioned portraits.
How Loud is a Gavel?
The commanding rap of a gavel punctuates each meeting of the House of Representatives. House gavels have always been practical wooden mallets, perfect for grabbing the attention of a loud, large group of legislators. But how loud is a gavel in the House?
Please Pass the Gavel
During his nearly four-decade career in Congress, Republican Leader Bob Michel of Illinois had only one chance to preside over the House. Ironically, his short-lived time in the Speaker’s chair came when the Democrats held the majority and because his colleague Speaker Tom Foley of Washington decided that Michel had waited long enough to wield the gavel.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. The series appears monthly. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory