In 2007, while conducting image research at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, our office ran across a record vaguely labeled “65th Congress.” The office took a chance and ordered the photograph, sight unseen, only to learn the image was too big to print. Instead, the Library of Congress provided a CD with a digital copy of the image. Curious, staff opened the file and slowly zoomed in. There in the center of an expansive photograph, with the East Front of the Capitol as its backdrop, was the first woman in Congress, Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, seated next to the Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri and surrounded by notable chairmen. The remarkable image, which captures so many of the people of “the People’s House,” now adorns the home page of the History, Art & Archives website and the @USHouseHistory Twitter account.
This blog discusses how researchers, with very few clues about the image’s original provenance, answered two big questions: when during the 65th Congress (1917–1919) was the image taken, and could the Members in the photograph be identified? During the spring of 2016, two interns made answering those questions their project. They discuss their research efforts below.
The 65th Congress met from 1917 to 1919, and proved to be a highly transformative session. The Members of this Congress declared war, passed a prohibition amendment, and provided the beginnings of a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution. As the first woman to serve in Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana (number 64 in the image) made waves as a labor activist and pacifist. Other notable figures serving in this Congress included Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri (66), former Speaker Joseph Cannon of Illinois (57), and future Speakers Nicholas Longworth of Ohio (8), Joseph W. Byrns of Tennessee (31), and Henry Thomas Rainey of Illinois (76) all appear in this once-in-a-lifetime photograph. Both future Speakers Samuel Rayburn of Texas and William Bankhead of Alabama served in the 65th Congress, but are not identified in the picture. Two hundred and sixty-four—or a little more than half—of the Members, ranging from freshmen to veteran Congressmen, gathered on the East Front of the Capitol that day.
After countless attempts to find mention of the event in congressional sources or in comprehensive newspaper databases, a diligent staff member located one small Washington Evening Star article under the headline “REPRESENTATIVES POSE FOR GROUP PICTURES.”
The article revealed that the Members sat for the picture on March 20, 1918. With a date in hand, we moved forward with identifying the Members in the photograph, suspecting that no one who left the House prior to that date would be in the picture and no one who was elected after that date would be present either. Armed with the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, our interns could eliminate 18 men who had died, resigned, lost a contested election before March 20, 1918, or were not sworn in until after the picture was taken.
The process of identifying the 264 Members was daunting from the start. With only slightly more than half of the Members present for the picture, the universe of identities for each person nearly doubled—and not all Members had photographs in the Biographical Directory.
The next step for identifying the Members in the image was to find a pattern in the way they were seated. Our initial theory that chairmen and other House leadership had prominent seating near the center of the image fell apart early in our research.
After discovering that Members from Ohio, New York, and Texas sat with other Members from Ohio, New York, and Texas, it soon became apparent that Members generally organized by state delegations. Identifying one Member from a particular state narrowed down the possibilities for those surrounding him in the picture. Naturally, this led to difficulties when Members chose to sit apart from their state delegation. For example, Robert Lee Doughton (21) of North Carolina nearly bisects the Pennsylvania delegation on the left from the angle of the cameraman.
Many faces reminded observers of modern-day actors. The Congressional lookalikes ranged from Will Ferrell (Bruce Sterling of Pennsylvania, 228) to Ty Burrell (Sydney Mudd of Maryland, 141) to Brian Doyle Murray (W.E. Mason of Illinois, 154). As the researchers communicated with one another about possible IDs, they relied on such associations, sometimes saying, “Look at Will Ferrell’s twin” to see if he might match a Member from an early Pictorial Directory or the Biographical Directory. After dissecting the image for days on end, even regular people on the street began to resemble those in the 65th Congress.
In addition to celebrity lookalikes, many of the Members featured in the class picture closely resembled each other. This complicated the identification process. When we attempted to compare a Member’s individual photograph to a person in the large panorama, we would often notice two or more possibilities. For example, Representatives Hatton Sumners of Texas (52) and Richard Nash Elliott of Indiana (171) demonstrated just how identical two Members could appear. In another case, both 202 and 208 could pass for Representative Gordon Lee of Georgia.
Eventually, the office was able to identify the vast majority of the 264 Members and made at least plausible guesses as to the identities of nearly all of the other Congressmen.
Many questions about the image remain unanswered. Whose idea was it to sit for this historic photograph? Who took the photograph? Why are whole state delegations—like North Dakota—apparently absent from the image, especially since it’s the middle of the session? Who was the photobombing teenager and possible House Page between 202 and 203? Most importantly, what happened to the image key?
With the hope of identifying the remaining Members, our office welcomes you to help us link names to faces and finish labeling this landmark photograph. The attached PDF lays out the names and guesses we have so far. Tweet @USHouseHistory to help us complete this project!Follow @USHouseHistory