Before there were smart phones equipped with weather apps, news anchors in front of green screens, or radar for tracking storms, Members of the House still wanted the latest weather forecasts. The staff at the U.S. Weather Bureau (later the National Weather Service) satisfied this need to know with the only map the agency’s staff personally drew outside its headquarters. And for a century, the weather map in the Members' Retiring Room—just outside the House Chamber—became a social nexus for Members and House staff alike, many of whom wanted to know the conditions back home.
Once under the purview of the military, the U.S. Weather Bureau became a civilian agency in 1890 under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. As early as 1893, the Bureau placed weather maps on the House and Senate sides of the Capitol that displayed weather statistics recorded at stations across the country. Observations collected at 8:00 AM made it to the Capitol maps by 11:00 (later, readings taken at midnight made it to the Capitol before 8:00). Originally the Weather Bureau designated clerks to maintain the House and Senate maps, but by the mid-20th century, rotating staff from the agency’s headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, arrived early each morning to carefully illustrate the day’s weather.
The first maps were made of paper attached to the wall. Hooks marked the locations of 100 weather stations around the country. Bureau staff hung small, color-coded discs from each hook indicating the latest weather—sunny (red), cloudy (blue), raining or snowing (black)—along with statistics for that station. Lines of red tape with black arrows at the end reported the paths of storms.
In 1897, the paper maps were replaced with “new beveled plate glass weather maps,” installed in mid-July. Meteorologists drew weather patterns in color-coded chalk and recorded statistics next to the painted names of the 119 U.S. and 23 Canadian weather stations. As the science behind predicting weather evolved, forecasts for the next 24 hours were added to one corner of the map.
The maps were not replaced again until 1954, after a major renovation of the chamber. The Washington Post described them as “more colorful, up to date and with a 3-D twist” with a “fresh bright color scheme sufficiently restrained to harmonize with the new decor of the Capitol.” The continental U.S. was shaded in light yellow and the new maps displayed more of Mexico and Canada—“for diplomatic reasons”—in a muted shade of brown. Weather Bureau staff recorded statistics for 128 cities with “chalked green blobs” indicating rain and “swirling lines” defining various weather fronts.
Throughout the decades, the weather map served as a gathering place for Representatives, “officials of high and low degree, and even the diminutive pages.” Members tracked the conditions in their home districts, in part to gauge the effects of the weather on local agriculture and industry. “Many members would soon think of going without their morning papers at breakfast as to miss consulting this map as they pass to their daily duties in the halls of congress,” a Boston Daily Globe reporter observed. Baseball fans in the 1890s crowded around the maps in the spring with “joy serene” on their faces should the “disk [be] red and the black arrow and the tape . . . not point[ing] in the direction of the diamond fields.”
By the mid-20th century the map was an “old Congress Custom,” and one of the “Capitol Hill rituals that seems destined to continue.” Yet technology eventually outpaced the weather map: alterations sometime before 1973 did away with the hand-sketched map, replacing it with paper print outs. And the weather map came down for good in the mid-1990s . . . a computer left in its place.
Sources: Washington Post, August 30, 1983; Detroit Free Press, July 1, 1894; Boston Daily Globe, June 3, 1900; New York Times, April 29, 1894; Washington Post, July 14, 1897; Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1900; Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1951; Washington Post, January 3, 1954; New York Times, August 29, 1965; Congressional Directory, 54th Cong., 2nd sess. (1896); Architect of the Capitol, Office of the Curator, “Speaker’s Lobby and Members’ Retiring Room, United States Capitol,” April 1999.