Opening day of a new Congress is usually a day full of excitement and activity. A new session begins, the Members are sworn in, and the House of Representatives organizes itself for the first time in a new term. Adding to the excitement of the opening day of March 9, 1933, a special visitor was in attendance, the new First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The flurry of activity in the House Chamber can sometimes be chaotic, but the rules of the House maintain the decorum and help the “People’s House” function smoothly. But, as the First Lady’s visit soon proved, those same rules are sometimes subject to change for special visitors.
On this occasion, the First Lady and her entourage quietly took their seats in the Executive section of the House Gallery. Mrs. Roosevelt’s appearance was unexpected to those in attendance in the chamber. Even more surprising were the contents of the bag carried by the First Lady. Once seated, she opened up her satchel and pulled out a roll of white yarn. Without missing a stitch, Mrs. Roosevelt began working on a knitting project while observing the House Floor proceedings, which included the election of Henry Rainey of Illinois as Speaker of the House. Unaware of her presence, a surprised Member shouted, “Mrs. Roosevelt!” when he noticed her in the gallery. The gesture prompted a standing ovation, which the First Lady greeted by taking a break from her knitting to acknowledge the Members and other well-wishers. Reporters speculated that Mrs. Roosevelt’s precise knitting and purling project was a sweater.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s project created such a stir because it broke the tradition of gallery visitors simply sitting and observing the chamber’s proceedings. Neither Hinds’s, Cannon’s, or Deschler’s Precedents make any mention of Mrs. Roosevelt’s (or anyone else’s) knitting hobby, but they do state that guests in the gallery must “maintain order.” With the goal of not disrupting proceedings, current rules do not permit visitors so much as a pen and paper let alone knitting needles and yarn.
Throughout Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure as President, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt frequented the House Gallery as an observer. She earned the reputation as a prolific knitter and was known to even craft during her own radio addresses. In most instances, she kept her knitting projects on hand for the right opportunity to knit and purl. She reportedly knitted a small blue sweater during the 1935 Annual Message.
Sources: Washington Post, 10 March 1933; Boston Globe, 10 March 1933; New York Times, 5 January 1935; Hinds’s, Cannon’s, and Deschler’s Precedents; “My Day,” by Eleanor Roosevelt, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/.Follow @USHouseHistory