Page Traditions

Many of the House traditions that developed over more than two centuries included the Pages. As the Page program grew with the House over the course of the institution’s history, this was inevitable.

Drawing of Seats on House Floor

Before the installation of the theater-style bench seats in the modern House Chamber, Representatives sat at individual desks on the House Floor. When the House first occupied its current chamber in December 1857, the Members already were sitting in party blocs—with Democrats to the Speaker’s right and Republicans to his left. But individual desks were chosen by lottery. At the opening of each Congress, the Speaker requested Members to clear the contents of their desks and retire behind the back rail of the chamber. From there, they were spectators to the seat selection lottery.

Seat Assignment Lottery/tiles/non-collection/4/4traditions_lottery_hc2009_129_005-2.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
This 1869 print accompanies a newspaper article explaining how business was conducted in the Congress. The seat assignment lottery, with a blindfolded Page drawing the names of Members who came forward to choose their seat in the House Chamber, was part of the excitement of a new Congress.
Sometime in the years after the Civil War—no source definitively records when—Pages gained a starring role in the seat assignment ritual on Opening Day. By some accounts, the Chief Page was placed at the Clerk’s desk and blindfolded. He then drew numbered marbles from a box that corresponded to an alphabetical list of Members maintained by the Clerk of the House. As each ball was drawn, the Clerk announced the result, and the Member chose his seat. “The results of this grand lottery are the best proofs of the absolute democracy of the House,” a correspondent for the Chicago Daily Tribune explained in 1897. “Frequently members longest in service are obliged to take the poorest seats and some unknown greenhorn from a back county is pushed into prominence by mere luck.”43 This practice ended in the early twentieth century when the House had reached its current number of 435 voting Representatives and the individual desks were removed in favor of the unassigned, modern benches.

With the need for more space, the first House Office Building (now named the Cannon House Office Building) was built and opened in 1908, further reducing the need for Members to have individual desks on the House Floor. But here, too, House Pages played a role in assigning space. On January 8, 1908, in preparation for the opening of the office building at the conclusion of legislative proceedings in the chamber, a blindfolded House Page once again drew numbered marbles (each corresponding to a Member) and in succession each Representative was allowed to choose his office from a floor plan of the building. Claude Kitchin of North Carolina won the “lottery” as the first Member chosen, and picked his office, which was then Room 430 of the building.44

Delivering a Bill to the Chief Bill Clerk/tiles/non-collection/4/4traditions_jurgensen-deliveringbill_lcH2223280.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In this image from the late 1930s, Page John Jurgensen (right) delivers a bill from the House Floor to Chief Bill Clerk William McDermott, who will number the bill and prepare it for delivery to the Government Printing Office. Running official documents from the floor to various offices around the Capitol complex was a primary task of the Pages.
Initially, the expansion of office space increased the workload for Pages, who wore their shoe leather thin hiking from the House Chamber across the expanding Capitol campus. Member and committee offices crammed into the Cannon Building at first were later spread to the Longworth Building (opened in 1933 as the “New House Office Building”) and the Rayburn Building (opened in 1965). But over time, particularly after the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, Member staff sizes increased considerably. By the latter twentieth century, many of the jobs Pages once performed were gradually assumed by junior staff or even college interns.

Mock Sessions of the House

Well into the twentieth century, House Pages held mock legislative sessions in the empty chamber during recesses and wrestled with surprisingly complex policy and procedure, often with “delight in aping their congressional masters,” quipped one observer.45

Page Varsity Letter Patch/tiles/non-collection/2/2007_152_000PQ1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Brigadier General Joe Bartlett 
About this object
In 1944, the Capitol Page School awarded House Page Joe Bartlett, whose career as a House staffer eventually spanned 38 years, a varsity letter in basketball. Pages attended school in the early morning; worked as messengers in the Capitol during the day; and, as with Bartlett, a few played basketball in the evening.
Although such miniature Congresses went by different names over the years, they were an enduring aspect of Page life. Page Augustus Thomas recalled that in the early 1870s, Pages would gather impromptu in the chamber when the House was out of session. “One boy would get Mr. [Speaker James G.] Blaine’s gavel and smartly call for order, and the rest would scamper each to the seat where he felt sure of making the greatest hit” in imitating the most amusing orators of the day: General Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts; Samuel “Sunset” Cox of New York; or Judiciary Committee Chairman John A. Bingham of Ohio.46 In the 51st Congress (1889–1891), when Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine empowered the majority to move long-stalled legislation with new House rules, Pages formed the “Junior House of Representatives” and adopted “Reed’s Rules” for their own mock floor sessions.47 Whimsical debates often ensued over the appropriation of generous salary increases and perquisites for the Page corps. In one instance, a Page approached the chair to gain recognition, waving a dollar note: “Mr. Speaker,” he deadpanned, “I wish to introduce the following bill.”48 In the 1930s Pages convened the “Itsey-Bitsey Congress,” which debated such contemporary issues as selling war materials to foreign countries and the merits of a proposed Fair Labor Standards Act.49 About that time, for a $2 initiation fee, Pages also could participate in the Little Congress Club. This staff group (which was a forerunner to the Congressional Secretaries’ Club) also included secretaries, legislative support staff, amateur policy experts, and political aspirants, who “debated” bills regarding the top issues of the day (often before they came to the House or Senate for consideration) in the Cannon Building.50

Some observant Pages were more attuned to parliamentary maneuvering than the legislators they served. One such example was precocious Thaddeus Morrice of Washington, D.C., first appointed a Page in the late 1840s. In the days before a formal Parliamentarian’s Office existed, the youthful Morrice graduated from the Page ranks to serve as the “Clerk at the Speaker’s Table.” Always standing at the presiding officer’s side when the House was in session, Morrice prompted him, sotto voce, on rulings. Beginning with Speaker Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts (1855–1857) and extending into the Speakership of Schuyler Colfax of Indiana during the Civil War, this parliamentary prodigy was the chamber’s “recognized authority” on procedural questions and precedent.51

Sporting Events

Minority Leader Joe Martin and Speaker William Bankhead/tiles/non-collection/4/4traditions_bankhead_baseball_1939_lc26543u.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress House Minority Leader Joe Martin of Massachusetts, left, and Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead of Alabama pose with the House Page baseball team in 1939.
Sports constituted a staple of the Pages’ Capitol Hill experiences. Decades before congressional Democrats and Republicans competed on the baseball greensward, the chamber’s Pages played baseball games against one another (divided by political party), and against local sporting teams, Senate Pages, and even older House staff. The earliest reference to a Page baseball team dates to the late 1870s.52 By the turn of the twentieth century, local papers often featured box scores and at least one Washington Post article recorded a House Page team victory, 9 to 5, over the chamber’s adult employees.53 Eventually, a baseball rivalry grew between Senate and House Pages and persisted until it was interrupted by World War II. Speakers of the House were often on hand to throw out ceremonial first pitches. According to one source, the House had a perennial advantage over the Senate because its Page boys tended to be older and bigger.54

Representative Hamilton Fish Coaches Basketball/tiles/non-collection/4/4traditions_basketball_1935_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Former athlete Representative Hamilton Fish of New York coaches the 1927 House basketball team.
Even as baseball reigned as the preferred sport for many decades, yearbooks and newspaper accounts record House Pages participating in other forms of organized competition: boxing, swimming, football, and basketball. In the post-World War II years, with the growth of the Capitol Page School, basketball supplanted all others as the lone school sport—with a team composed of House and Senate Pages that played Washington-area high schools.

Pickup games and less organized extracurricular “sporting” activities also remained popular pastimes. Nineteenth-century Pages played marbles behind the Speaker’s Rostrum when the House stood in recess, and even as late as the mid-twentieth century some Pages hunted—with pellet guns and terriers—the large and unusually bold pack of rats that populated the labyrinthine basement of the Capitol. “Darn things were about as big as housecats,” Representative John D. Dingell, Jr., recalled many decades later.55

Initiation Rituals

From the nineteenth century forward, numerous accounts relate traditional jokes and pranks that senior Pages played on their recently-arrived colleagues. Newcomers might be asked to fetch a “Congressional Record player,” procure pigeon’s milk for a thirsty congressman, or acquire polish for the Capitol Dome. “If we had a green Page,” recalled Glenn Rupp, “ . . . we might send him for a check stretcher, or a sky hook, and keep a straight face.” The Page would be dispatched to the Clerk’s Office or the House Document Room, “scratching his head all the way over there to figure out how he was going to ask for such a silly thing.”56Bill Goodwin likewise remembered that one typical request grew out of the notion that as bills were debated and amended, the original bill would need to be “stretched” to fit new text crafted by legislators’ handiwork. “‘Go down to the House document room and get a bill stretcher,’” Goodwin recalled instructing a new Page. “‘Congressman Jones wants a bill stretcher over in his office.’”57

Given that many of the Pages were teen boys, nineteenth-century accounts suggest that such hijinks and a general lack of supervision away from work sometimes created a world of “bumptiousness and disaster.” One news correspondent from the 1890s noted, “A majority of [Pages] live away from home, and enjoying pretty good incomes for boys, their habits are not always of the best. Pages as a rule imitate the men whom they serve in chewing tobacco, smoking cigars and cigarettes, playing the races, and drinking beer.” Occasionally, unacceptable behavior prompted the Doorkeeper to relieve a Page of his duties and to send him packing back to his family.58

Singing in the Chamber

Some traditions—such as singing in the well of the House—helped to pass time or to celebrate special events. Pages and Members often sang in the chamber while the House stood in recess. One evening in the 1950s, recalled Bill Goodwin, while the House was waiting for the Senate to complete its business, Michigan Congressman Louis Rabaut (known among colleagues for his habit of spontaneously breaking into song) asked the young Page to come into the well of the House. “Bill, I understand you sing,” Rabaut said. “Yes, sir, I do,” Goodwin replied. “Well, several Members of the House have told me they heard you sing at the [Page] graduation, so I would like for you to sing that same song here.” Before a jam-packed chamber, Goodwin performed “The Lord’s Prayer.” Goodwin and Congresswoman Coya Knutson of Minnesota then sang a duet for Members in the chamber.59

Footnotes

43“For a Tariff Bill: Congress Responds to the Call of the President,” 16 March 1897, Chicago Daily Tribune: 1.

44See “Lottery in the House Near,” 6 January 1908, New York Tribune: 3; “Congressmen Hold Lottery,” 10 January 1908, Atlanta Constitution Journal: 5; and Congressional Record, House, 60th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 January 1908): 567–569.

45Carpenter, “Congressional Pages.”

46Thomas, The Print of My Remembrance: 46.

47“Precocious Pages”: 22.

48John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., “The Ambitious Congressional Page: His Interesting Routine and Generous Pay,” 25 May 1902, Detroit Free Press: D4.

49Losche, Washington Memoirs: 126–127.

50Rupp, Interview 1: 16.

51Walter Wellman, “Smart Boys Are They: Meaning the Pages at the National Capitol,” 20 September 1890, Aberdeen Daily News (SD); “Speaker’s Page,” 12 March 1860, Lowell Daily Citizen and News: n.p.; “Deaths,” 16 March 1864, Daily National Intelligencer: np; “Death of a Useful Congressional Officer,” 16 March 1864, Baltimore Sun: 1. For more on the development of the Parliamentarian’s Office see, http://history.house.gov/People/Office/Parliamentarians/.

52See “Alexandria Annals,” 29 April 1878, Washington Post: 3; Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 26. For reference to Pages from the “east” side of the chamber playing those who worked the “west” side, see “Precocious Pages.”

53“House Pages Defeat Their Elders,” 2 August 1914, Washington Post: S1.

54Severn, Democracy’s Messengers: 42–43.

55Bartlett, Interview 1: 10–11; Dingell, unpublished interview: 22.

56Rupp, Interview 1: 46.

57Goodwin Interview: 6. For more on the practice, see Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 51.

58Wellman, “Smart Boys Are They: Meaning the Pages at the National Capitol.”

59Goodwin Interview: 13.