Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Best of the Blog in 2016

The Offices of House History and Art and Archives have been busy this year working on several new projects. We added an essay on Congress’s power to declare war, an entire section on House Service and Seniority, an exhibit exploring the sights and sites in the Capitol, two oral histories with groundbreaking female staffers Pat Kelly and Tish Schwartz, an exciting new Records Search with downloadable PDFs, and the launch of “A Century of Women in Congress” celebrating the centennial of Jeannette Rankin’s milestone election to the House of Representatives.

Whew! And on top of all that, the office published a whopping 53 blogs this year! As we get ready to start a new year, here are just a few of our favorites from 2016.

Rediscovering Rainey’s Reign

It’s unclear what prompted Representative Luke Poland of Vermont to leave the rostrum that day and yield the gavel, as the 43rd Congress (1873–1875) debated an Indian appropriations bill. But what is clear is that he set in motion a series of events that seemed the very culmination of the Civil War. When Poland stepped down, Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina—a former slave who had once been impressed into service by the Confederacy before escaping to Bermuda—mounted the Speaker’s rostrum, grasped the gavel, and set Capitol Hill abuzz.

One dedicated historian takes us on her quest to discover the truth of this day.

(Congress)Men without Hats

British traveler Henry B. Fearon cast a critical gaze from the House Gallery across the frothy sea of nearly 200 Representatives of the 15th Congress (1817-1819). Fearon had just endured a languid Senate session in which “apathy and complete lifeless endurance” greeted the endless speechmaking. Though he judged the House’s inhabitants comparatively lacking in “age, experience, dignity, and respectability,” Fearon nevertheless journaled a scene that churned and pulsed with legislative bustle. “Spitting boxes are placed at the feet of each member, and, contrary to the practices of the [Senate],” Fearon observed in 1818, almost parenthetically, “at once members and visitors wear their hats.”

So what happened to the hats?


On February 20, 1933, Speaker John Nance Garner struggled to maintain order on the House Floor as Thomas Blanton, a “dry,” made a final stand in support of Prohibition. Garner impatiently tapped the inkstand on the rostrum as Representatives booed and shouted “Vote, vote!” After the House voted to repeal Prohibition, the galleries and halls overflowed with the applause of spectators. Yet dismantling the legislative trails of the 18th Amendment took nearly a year. Like a bar crawl, the end of Prohibition was full of awkward moments, fights, and beer.

Take a glimpse at Members' celebrations once Prohibition was law no more.

“Female Cranks” and “Gallery Girls”

There once was a room in the Capitol that no longer exists—the Ladies’ Reception Room. Well-dressed young women, stouthearted activists, and despairing widows filled its sofas and chairs in the 19th century. Long before women entered the House Chamber as Representatives, this space was a battleground in the clash over women’s “proper” role in politics.

This story sheds light on the women fighting to be heard on the Hill long before Jeannette Rankin arrived in 1917.

Through Her Lens

With a bounce in her step and a camera in hand, Dolly Seelmeyer walked through the halls of the United States Capitol, from 1972 to 2004, as the first female House photographer, ready to prove she could do anything a male photographer could do—“and do it better.”

Read and listen to her story in her own words.

We Can’t Make This Stuff Up Either

A pianist, a professor, and an anthropologist walk into the Capitol. It sounds like the set up for a bit joke. However, in researching the institution, we occasionally stumble upon a few stories that prove once again that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This edition features a well-known Member and his lesser known musical career; a tenthidean cephalopod on the House Floor; and the weight of a Member’s brain.

Don’t miss this trio of unbelievable anecdotes from the history of the House!

Wash, Rinse, and Equal Treatment

In December 1967 Representative Martha Griffiths stepped in to save a teetering but beloved decades-old institution known as the House Beauty Shop. What began as a makeover became a movement for equality on Capitol Hill.

Learn about the fight to preserve the House Beauty Shop, and hear from the Members who stood by it.

Bartholdi Fountain

Please Put the Bartholdi Fountain in My Front Yard

From 1877 to 1932, the Bartholdi Fountain searched for a permanent home. Though concealed in the old Botanic Garden grounds near the Capitol, the majestic water feature attracted a lot of attention. Everyone in Washington, D.C., had an opinion about where it should go. And every resident, it seemed, wanted it in his or her front yard.

Don’t miss the interactive map guiding you through turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C.!

Stay tuned in 2017 for the many resignations of Henry Clay, some old advice for new Members, a look at the House Chamber on Opening Day, and much more celebration of the Rankin Centennial!

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