Buttonholing Members of Congress to tell them how you think they should vote—that’s as old as the republic itself. But calling it “lobbying”? Where does that come from? In the Capitol, one most often hears that the term derives from the Speaker’s Lobby, where Members of Congress congregate just outside the House Chamber. Others have said President Ulysses S. Grant coined the usage when he was repeatedly accosted by citizens in the Willard Hotel lobby in the 1860s. And still others trace it to lobbies or antechambers outside the British Houses of Parliament. In fact, none of those origins is true. The verbal association of legislative influence with a little entrance space has a less obvious source, and Americans started using it even earlier than these legends claim.
Etymologically, “lobby” derives from the Old High German louba, meaning hall or roof. It came to be used in 18th-century British theaters, where the “box-lobby lounger” became a common sight. He was someone who came not to see the play but to chat with the well-connected Londoners streaming through the lobby just outside their box seats. Lobby loungers showed up in American theaters, too, and provided the basis for the political version’s term.
The switch to a political use of the term “lobby” began in 1810s, in the statehouses of the northeastern United States. In 1817, one newspaper referred to a William Irving as a “lobby member” (as opposed to an elected member) of the New York legislature. It was the first known use of the term in print. It must have been a recent coinage, too, because in 1818 another writer helpfully defined a lobby member as someone who was “employed to advocate by extraneous influence” for petitions before the legislature. Later, newspapers added the variations “lobbying” (1820), “lobbyism” (1824), and “lobbyist” (1846).
From the start of the United States Congress, the room outside the House Chamber was called the lobby. The House lobby was the place for spectators, vendors, and ambassadors to see and be seen. It became such a noisy spot that by 1801, one Speaker threatened to clear the lobby completely. That draconian measure was never taken, and practically speaking, the lobby continued to be the easiest spot to encounter a Representative on his way to or from the House. Indeed, since Members had no office space, it was often the only place in the Capitol to meet.
The only spot in the Capitol now regularly called a lobby is the Speaker’s Lobby. It is a descendant of a Member’s smoking-retreat-cum-cloakroom, associated with the Speaker but not a lobby at all. In the old House Chamber, Members would hurry from the lobby to the fireplaces behind the Speaker’s dais to hang up their coats and warm their hands. They might also retire there to smoke while staying near enough to keep tabs on the action on the floor. Eventually, it became known as the logieum, or colonnade, due to the row of columns that separated it from the main chamber. It also became a space available to select friends of Representatives, a more exclusive version of the actual lobby.
When the new House Chamber opened in 1857, the space behind the Speaker’s chair in the new chamber had become the Speaker’s office. The hallway between the two also served as a lobby for anyone waiting to see the Speaker. This new area, called the Speaker’s Lobby, was a convenient lounging area for Members who were meeting with constituents and — yes—lobbyists. The lobby was so handy that it soon expanded, taking over nearby offices and balconies. The Speaker moved to a room down the hall, but the appellation of Speaker’s Lobby stuck. It wasn’t until the 1908 opening of the House’s first office building that most Representatives had rooms in which to hold meetings or receive visitors.
Sources: Albany Register, National Advocate, Commercial Advertiser, New Hampshire Sentinel, Centinel of Freedom, Gazette of the United States, New York Tribune, Box Lobby Loungers (Metropolitan Museum of Art 59.533.1083)Follow @USHouseHistory