Before the Flag

In 1929, the Capitol celebrated Flag Day with the United States Flag Association rolling out the (allegedly) largest flag in the world on the West Front, accompanied by an amplified, patriotic program. But what about the normal-sized, everyday flags in the Chamber? One might assume that its current spot— front and center, behind the Speaker on the rostrum—was always the case. However, there is no official protocol on flag display, so we turn to images from the House Collection to piece together the history of the flag in the House Chamber.

Chamber of Representatives/tiles/non-collection/2/2005_139-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object 
A full Chamber, complete with sculptures, portraits and furniture, includes a carved shield with stars and stripes above the Speaker's rostrum, but no flag.

For the 21st-century citizen, steeped in the tradition of a daily Pledge of Allegiance from kindergarten onward, it comes as a surprise to see that the U.S. flag hasn’t always been prominently displayed in the Chamber. Images of the Old Hall of the House (now Statuary Hall) reveal no evidence of a U.S. flag. The Speaker’s rostrum then, similar to the rostrum of today, was a series of tiered desks. Elaborate red drapes, topped off by a “baldacchino”—a canopy used to indicate a seat of honor—surrounded it. A shield carved with stars and stripes was affixed to it, but no actual flag. In prints and paintings, the absence of the flag is universal. The circa 1834 print Interior of the House of Representatives, Washington shows a wealth of details—the Car of History carved-marble clock, the Liberty and the Eagle sculpture high above the rostrum, the drapery between the variegated marble columns, even the framed print of the Declaration of Independence over the fireplace—so one can’t assume that the absence of the U.S. flag was because the artist was skimping on scenery. A print from 15 years later of the House in session shows more voluminous draperies, a crowd in the gallery, and a schematic representation of the George Washington portrait, but still, no flag.

Flags came and went through the 1870s, appearing in pairs on the occasions they were present./tiles/non-collection/c/combined_stereoviews.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Flags came and went through the 1870s, appearing in pairs on the occasions they were present.
Images of the new House Chamber, opened in 1857, start to show flags on display, but not in the early years, and not consistently. Through the 1860s, the Chamber remains flagless. The London Illustrated News’ “A Scene in the Hall of Representatives,” for example, shows a spirited debate and the elaborate marble rostrum, with an empty wall behind it. By the 1870s, though, flags start to pop up on occasion. A stereoview of the Chamber taken between 1873 and 1875 shows two flags on short poles, displayed upright at the top of the decorative cast-iron wall behind the Speaker’s rostrum. These two seemed to come and go, though. In a stereoview from around the same time, (1874–1878) the flags have been removed.

<p>The turn of the twentieth century ushered in the regular appearance of a flag behind the Speaker's rostrum.</p>/tiles/non-collection/2/2007_101_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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The turn of the twentieth century ushered in the regular appearance of a flag behind the Speaker's rostrum.

It’s not until right around the turn of the 20th century that the flag appears regularly in images of the Chamber, but the style of display still varies. An 1898 stereoview shows a configuration similar to the one used today. Rather than two smaller, upright flags, as seen in early images, here we see one large vertically hung flag. Because it is a little too long to hang comfortably, this flag is bundled up at the bottom, and the field of stars faces the Speaker’s left.

The Chamber desperately needed roof repairs by 1948, and allotted flag space also appeared inadequate./tiles/non-collection/P/PA2014_12_0023.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives The Chamber desperately needed roof repairs by 1948, and allotted flag space also appeared inadequate.
A few years later, in 1901, the Daughters of the American Revolution donated a flag for the Chamber. The stars-above-Speaker’s-left-shoulder arrangement was maintained during the years following the gift, but by 1915, it gets flipped around, with the stars above the Speaker’s right shoulder. This eventually became the standard configuration, though it flips back and forth until at least 1924.

Although the orientation of the flag settled down after 1924, the size used today wasn’t yet settled on. A 1948 photo of workmen hanging the flag shows the very large size of the one used in this period. To stay off the ground—and maintain the vertical look established after 1924—the flag’s hanging rail runs over the clock above the Speaker’s rostrum and a portion of the Press Gallery balustrade.

In the modern Chamber, the ornate iron wall behind the rostrum was replaced with marble, including a space in the center perfectly sized for a flag./tiles/non-collection/2/2008_130_34.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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In the modern Chamber, the ornate iron wall behind the rostrum was replaced with marble, including a space in the center perfectly sized for a flag.
The following year marked the beginning of the Chamber’s major renovation. Opening Day of Congress in 1951 was the first meeting in the fresh, new Chamber. The wall behind the rostrum was redesigned with a perfectly flag-sized space behind the Speaker, between two green marble columns. The flag finally had its official place of honor in the Chamber.