Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Edition for Educators—The House Chamber

The Modern House Chamber/tiles/non-collection/1/1-24_Modern-House_PA2015_06_0082.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives The House of Representatives has met in several places since the 1st Congress (1789–1791). The House Chamber itself has changed considerably over the years. This image shows the modern chamber in 2015.
Since 1789, the House of Representatives has met in a number of locations. But regardless of the setting, the House Chamber has always been a storied space. Since the House first met in closing years of the eighteenth century, thousands of men and women from all corners of the country have filled its seats to debate legislation and shape the rhythms of American life. Today, the modern House Chamber, which first opened in 1857, can often seem to be two things at once: intimidating but also welcoming, imposing but also familiar. This Edition for Educators highlights the spaces which have served as the meeting place for the People’s House.

When the Founders agreed to move the seat of government to the banks of the Potomac River, what would become the bustling city of Washington, DC, was little more than a sleepy crossroads. Like the town itself, the Capitol building had limited space initially; the House didn’t have its own chamber until 1807. During the War of 1812, British troops ransacked the young city and destroyed much of the Capitol, including the House Chamber. After meeting in temporary spaces, architects rebuilt the Capitol and the House met in what is today Statuary Hall from 1819 to 1857.

As the country expanded during the 19th century, the size of the House expanded as well and it quickly outgrew its space. In 1857, architects finished building a new House Chamber with more space, better acoustics, brighter light, and improved ventilation. A new marble Speaker’s rostrum greeted Members in the rectangular chamber underneath a stained glass skylight. Much like in the Old Hall of the House, each Member had a personal desk on the floor. Directly above the Members, both the press and public observed the day’s proceedings from the galleries that ringed the chamber.

The modern chamber has changed considerably over the years, for reasons both practical and aesthetic. In 1913, for instance, the House removed its individual desks and replaced them with benches of upholstered seats to accommodate more Members. For roughly 18 months, between July 1949 and January 1951, the House met in the Ways and Means Committee room as the chamber underwent major renovations in an effort to modernize it. Among the many changes at that time, a larger walnut rostrum replaced the marble rostrum first installed in 1857. The chamber was wired for electronic voting in the early 1970s, and television cameras were installed later that decade.

House Chamber Scaffolding/tiles/non-collection/1/1-24_House_Rafters_2008_130_037.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The ceiling required significant renovations in 1940, resulting in the elaborate scaffolding seen here.

Rules for the Chamber

The Ban on Hats on the House Floor
On September 14, 1837, the House adopted a rule stipulating that no Member could wear a hat on the floor during a session of the House. With virtually no debate, the rules were modified to read: “Every member shall remain uncovered during the sessions of the House.” The change was anticlimactic considering—as Hinds Precedents reported—that earlier proposals to ban hats were “the fruit of a considerable agitation” before 1837.

Who Kicked the Dogs Out?
Eccentric and quick-tempered, Virginia Representative John Randolph spent his early House service in a chamber that had quite literally gone to the dogs—his dogs, in fact. Randolph often brought his hunting dogs into the House Chamber, leaving them to lope and lounge about the floor during the session’s proceedings, much to the ire of some of his colleagues . . . especially a new Speaker of the House named Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Early Efforts to Ban Smoking in the House Chamber
On January 10, 1896, the House of Representatives officially banned smoking in the House Chamber. In 1871, under Speaker James G. Blaine of Maine, the House had initiated the first ban which eliminated smoking in the galleries and on the House Floor while in legislative session. The 1896 provision amended House Rule 65 (present-day Rule 17) to prohibit smoking at all times in the House Chamber.

Sights and Sounds

Ten Trumpets and a Flying Coffin
What did it take to be heard in the House of Representatives? Acoustics were notoriously bad in the House Chamber in the early 20th century. Getting from “wait, what?” to “loud and clear” required three tries, ten trumpets, and a flying coffin.

Singing in the Well
Representative John Dingell of Michigan recounts singing in the well of the House alongside his state colleague Louis Rabaut as they waited for the Senate to adjourn.

The Honorable John Dingell, Jr., U.S. Representative of Michigan and Son of Representative John Dingell, Sr., of Michigan Interivew recorded February 3, 2012 Transcript (PDF)

“As Large as Life”: Lafayette’s Portrait
The portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, dashing hero of the American Revolution, was a huge hit across the nation when it arrived in 1824. The portrait appeared on posters, memorabilia, and even on currency, becoming the most famous image of Lafayette during his wide-ranging tour of the United States that same year. Artist Ary Scheffer gave the portrait to the House in honor of General Lafayette's 1824-1825 tour of America. And it wasn't just a handsome present. It was a complete surprise.

Browse a broad assortment of art and objects in the House Collection’s series on the House Chamber.

Opening the Doors of Congress/tiles/non-collection/1/1-24_Doors_2010_158_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Joseph Sinnott, pictured here opening the maple-veneered doors of the House Chamber, served 23 years as Doorkeeper.

The Keepers of the Chamber

Doorkeepers of the House
A House of Representatives officer from 1789 to 1995, the Doorkeeper was elected by a resolution at the opening of each Congress. The Doorkeeper controlled access to the House Chamber and eventually oversaw the press in the gallery. A total of 34 individuals served in the Doorkeeper position until it was terminated in the 104th Congress (1995-1997) and many of its duties were transferred to the Sergeant at Arms, the Clerk of the House, and the newly created Chief Administrative Officer.

Sergeants at Arms
An officer of the House whose history extends back to the First Congress, the Sergeant at Arms is the chamber’s principal law enforcement official, charged with maintaining security on the floor and for the House side of the Capitol complex. Mandated under the current House Rule II, the Sergeant at Arms also enforces protocol and ensures decorum during floor proceedings. Over time, the office’s duties have encompassed administrative functions: arranging Capitol funerals, managing parking facilities, and issuing identification to Members and staff.

The Cloakrooms

"You've Won Your Way Into Our Hearts"
Tucked away in a corner of the L-shaped Republican Cloakroom reserved for Members of Congress, a hard-working, modest woman ran a cramped lunch counter in the U.S. Capitol. Part of a world built upon power and influence, Helen Sewell did not use her position for political gain, but focused instead on caring for the people she considered family for more than 70 years. “You’ve won your way into our hearts,” Representative Paul Henry of Michigan once told Sewell, “and helped keep this institution human when the going gets rough.”

Running the Democratic Cloakroom
Donnald K. Anderson, House Clerk, recalls the activities of the Democratic Cloakroom during the 1970s and 1980s.

Donnald K. Anderson, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives Interview recorded October 23, 2006 Transcript (PDF)

Special Guests

House Receptions
Congress has invited speeches by dignitaries throughout its history. Initially, the standard manner in which both the House and the Senate received addresses by foreign leaders was to invite dignitaries to a one-chamber reception. This procedure required either unanimous consent or resolution by the chamber that wished to receive the foreign leader. In the post-World War II era, the practice of using one-chamber receptions largely disappeared.

New Hall of the House/tiles/non-collection/1/1-24_New-Hall_2003_033_001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This hand-colored wood engraving from Harper's Weekly provided a glimpse of the new House Chamber in early 1858.
State of the Union
Since 1913, when Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of presenting the message to Congress in person, the State of the Union has evolved into a grand annual affair in the nation’s capital. During the Annual Message, the House Chamber seats Representatives, Senators, members of the President’s Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court, the Diplomatic Corps, and guests of the President and Members of Congress.

The Man in Black’s Tribute to the Ragged Old Flag
On June 14, 1977, the Man in Black strode into the House Chamber as if it were the Grand Ole Opry. But music legend Johnny Cash wasn't about to belt out tunes for any ordinary concert. Rather, Cash delivered a moving poem to celebrate the bicentennial of the U.S. flag.

Tour the House Chamber

The House Curator discusses the historical evolution of the House Chamber and walks viewers through the sights and symbols of the Chamber in the two behind-the-scenes videos presented here.

This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.