“An Attractive and Luscious Plum”: Capitol Guides in the 1920s

Capitol Guides Elizabeth and Anna Eliza Smith/tiles/non-collection/6/6-8-photo-PA2014_07_0030.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Twins Elizabeth and Anna Eliza Smith wore their Capitol guide badges in 1927.
No, you’re not seeing double: these happy Capitol guides are twins.

Elizabeth and Anna Eliza Smith, twin sisters from Illinois, began working as Capitol guides in 1927. With a thorough knowledge of political and historical information, these smiling twins led visitors through the Capitol, explaining the history of the Crypt and art of the Rotunda. Though taking visitors around the halls of Congress might look innocent, the Smith twins had actually joined a suspect profession. Capitol guides were at the center of a controversy in the 1920s, accused of a lucrative monopoly.

Capitol guide service began in 1876, when visitors to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition also traveled to view the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Metal badges identified the guides to tourists. Until uniforms were issued in 1938, guides wore their own clothes. Capitol guides were not government employees, though they were appointed by the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms, and served under the Capitol Police Board. When guides led tourists through the Capitol, each visitor paid them 25 cents. As independent operators, the official guides relied entirely on these fees. While 25 cents might not sound lucrative today, the Baltimore Sun reported in 1926 that these guides brought home more money than nearly all the federal employees in the Capitol. Guides could make more than $20 a day in 1926—equal to $270 today. As early as 1908, reporters declared that “Capitol guides get easy money.”

Capitol Guide Britton Hughes/tiles/non-collection/6/6-8-photo-PA2015_03_0041.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
During the 72nd Congress, Capitol guide Britton Hughes was often mistaken for House Speaker John Nance Garner.
With so much “easy money” at stake, the official Capitol guides tried to make sure that no outsiders came into the Capitol to pick up their tourists and fees. When visitors tried to use unofficial guides, they were stopped and brought to the Senate Sergeant at Arms. They were instructed to use an official guide and pay a quarter, even if they had already paid their unofficial guide. Unsurprisingly, the guide system was accused of setting up a “monopoly” sanctioned by the government.

Complaints about Capitol guides did not stop at the cost of tours. In 1921, a group of women visited the House to hear Alice Mary Robertson, the only female Member, speak on the House Floor. Just a few minutes into Robertson’s speech about tariffs, the guide on duty tried to herd the visitors out of the gallery. Or they could stay, as long as they paid 25 cents to the next guide. Guides also reportedly worked with actors to fool tourists into thinking they were meeting Members of Congress—leading to even bigger tips.

Capitol Guide Olga Rice/tiles/non-collection/6/6-8-photo-capitol-guide-LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Showing off the new guide uniform, Olga Rice led a group through the Capitol in 1938.
Getting frustrated that “the position of ‘official guide’ at the Capitol has ripened into an attractive and luscious plum to be shaken from the old political tree,” reporters and tourists protested the fees. After the cost of a tour drove a Kansas schoolgirl to tears, Joseph Rodgers, Sergeant at Arms of the House of Representatives, declared the charges to be an outrage. Through the 1920s, the House of Representatives debated whether Capitol tours should be free, but each attempt to limit or abolish fees was unsuccessful. It took four decades’ more debate, but ultimately all tours were declared free.

Today, a highly-trained professional team of Visitor Guides employed by the Architect of the Capitol provides tours for nearly two million visitors a year on behalf of Congress. While the guides are all federal employees, they are still often offered tips, which they respectfully decline.

Sources: Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970; 89 H.R. 4942, “To Establish a Free Guide Service for the U.S. Capitol Building”; Baltimore Sun, August 23, 1926; New York Times, August 5, 1923; Washington Post, July 19, 1913.

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