“To be a gallery god in the House of Representatives is to have a free seat at a unique performance.” So said one newspaper, and for two centuries Americans have agreed, with gusto. From the moment Congress first met in 1789, citizens visited the House Chamber to watch their national legislature in action. Today, passes to sit in the House Gallery are required for entry and are freely available from Members’ offices. They become treasured souvenirs of Capitol visits, and important historical artifacts. The House Collection contains some of the oldest (and newest) varieties of tickets, from scribbled passes to high-tech printed versions, and everything in between.
Being able to watch the House at work is a tradition as old as the Congress, but the idea of issuing tickets first arose in 1877. The outcome of the previous November’s presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden was still in doubt. Public interest was understandably intense when the Congress met over several days in February and March 1877 in Joint Session to count the disputed electoral ballots. The House rose to the challenge of managing thousands of eager visitors, and issued large printed tickets on stiff paperboard, a different color for each day. The packed galleries were “resplendent with the diversified colors worn by the ladies,” reported the newspapers.
The experiment successfully regulated public access. Within a year, every day was a ticketed day for most of the public. One newspaper reported that “in order to limit the space which loafers of a most objectionable character used daily to fill in the House gallery” the House decided to require passes to the gallery. One of the earliest surviving tickets is a simple pass that Speaker Samuel Randall wrote out by hand in 1878, indicating that efficient printing wasn’t in place just yet. Occasionally, the House decided to alter its own gallery rules, to accommodate crowds on particularly momentous occasions. In 1898 the chamber opened extra seating for the ticket-holding public to see the Spanish-American War debates.
The design and printing of gallery passes changed almost a dozen times over the years. Initially handwritten, by 1884 Visitor’s Gallery passes were printed on yellow cardboard. A Member wrote in the date, name of the bearer, dates of admission, and importantly, his signature. In 1890, passes included a printed image of the House side of the Capitol behind the text.
Beginning in 1897, designers tinkered with the passes’ look. The House tried out infinite combinations of enduring symbols: the female personification of Liberty, the House mace, a starry striped shield, acorns, oak leaves and laurel branches, eagles, and Capitol domes. Innovations like brightly colored paper and a numbering system were introduced. For variety, Joint Sessions, Joint Meetings, and openings of Congress had entirely different passes issued for each event.
At first, the Member who issued the pass signed it. By the 1930s, so many visitors wanted them that rubber stamps and mechanical signing devices began to stand in for the Member’s own hand. In the 21st century, even more innovations, such as slick coated paper, security holograms and adhesive stickers, became commonplace. Television coverage of the House floor made it possible to know what is going on, in real time, no matter where one is. But for those who come to Washington, a gallery pass serves the same purpose it has for generations–a ticket to witness history in the making.
Sources: Washington Post, February 2, 1908; Irish American Weekly (New York), February 10, 1877; Salt Lake Tribune, May 1, 1884.Follow @USHouseHistory