Stylish! Modern! Sturdy! And cheap! In the 1930s, Bakelite, an early plastic, was touted as “The Material of a Thousand Uses.” What uses, exactly? In one instance, desks for Congress.
When the Congress opened a new building (now called the Longworth House Office Building for Speaker Nicholas Longworth) during the Great Depression, the builders were at pains to prove that they were frugal. Speeches when the building opened touted that the House had saved over $1 million in construction. Representatives also wanted to be up-to-date in their approach to lawmaking, and were proud of the innovations in the new offices, from buzzers notifying Members of impending votes to early mobile telephones for policemen. The problem of how to outfit the seven-story building, and its 241 offices with “durable, attractive furniture in keeping with the character of the building,” on a tight budget, landed on the desk of decorator Barnet Phillips.
And that is where durable, attractive Bakelite came in. It was the first plastic made with synthetic components, and by 1932 it was the latest word in modernity and economy. Phillips used Bakelite to toughen up the 763 desks for Representatives and staff members. He designed the pieces of American walnut and topped them with Bakelite, “an acid-resisting border,” which would be impervious to hot water, cigar burns, solvents and acids. It was resilient and inexpensive, with the bonus of being a modern material for a modern legislature. The contemporary tops and borders harmonized surprisingly well on furniture that was otherwise influenced by the Classical style of the Capitol’s architecture. The combination gave the desks a stream-lined shape and efficient air.
More than 200 congressmen (including four future Speakers) moved into their new offices in April 1933. Moving the files alone was such an enormous project, and jobs were so scarce in the 1930s, that 3,000 people applied for positions shifting records and equipment from one building to the next. The first to establish his office was Frederick Britten of Illinois. To commemorate the event, he made a speech in the House Chamber reminding listeners that not only did the construction expense come in under budget, but also the furniture, Bakelite included, was 25 percent less costly than planned.
The new desks were much appreciated by the building’s thrifty new residents and their constituents. The dean of the Ohio delegation, John Cooper, was well-known for his overcrowded office in the old building. Cooper led Ohio’s Members into their new quarters, where one reporter compared the congressman’s Bakelite-topped furniture favorably to “the battered desk jammed into a corner of Representative Cooper’s old office.” 80 years after Britten, Cooper, and their colleagues crossed New Jersey Avenue to the Longworth building, more than 100 Bakelite desks are still in use in congressional offices. And the furniture makers would be proud of their Bakelite borders, still resisting burns and acids, as well as more mundane incursions, decades later.
Sources: Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997): 58; Chicago Daily Tribune, April 25, 1933; Portland Oregonian, April 26, 1933; Omaha World Herald, April 21, 1933; First Deficiency Appropriation Bill, FY 1932, HR 6660, 72nd Cong., 1st sess., House of Representatives.Follow @USHouseHistory