The long, narrow House Cloakrooms have never won decorating prizes. They are simple, comfortable waystations where Members can wait between votes, escape for a snack, or conduct business with other Members. The cloakrooms, one for Democrats and one for Republicans, lead directly to the House Chamber, and they are often the first place where staffers look for missing Representatives.
A host of useful and sentimental objects, such as telephones, old leather chairs, snacks, phone booths, law books, and even old trophies, make up the cloakrooms’ décor, but cloaks themselves are rarely seen. The rooms retain the name but not their early purpose as a space to stash belongings.
Just after builders finished the new House Wing in 1857, the House directed them to gut two long rooms adjacent to the Chamber and turn them into cloakrooms. These became handy places for Representatives to stow coats, cloaks, hats, and luggage that were unable to fit in their small desks.
As Representatives spent more time in the cloakrooms, the accoutrements of a men’s clubhouse sprang up around them. Enterprising attendants, primarily African Americans, began offering shaves and haircuts in the 1870s. Barbering was then one of the few accepted avenues to prosperity for black entrepreneurs. John Evans became so well known as a cloakroom barber that his endorsement of Coke Dandruff Cure appeared in magazine advertisements. The men who watched over the cloakrooms also expanded their business by offering liquor (slyly referred to by journalists as “lemonade”) to parched Congressmen and sandwiches to famished ones. The snack bars sometimes became family affairs, handed down from father to child. Well into the 20th century, staffers remembered how much pie they ate and weight they gained from the excellent cooking in these cramped spaces.
Representatives enjoyed the casual nature and rough-and-ready feel of the cloakrooms. Republicans could retreat to the “Saints’ Corner” of their room, where raconteurs “meet to ‘swap lies’ and tell stories,” reported one newspaper. Relaxation sometimes spilled over the threshold of the House Chamber. Observers in the Reporters’ Gallery had a perfect view of both cloakroom doors. One described the informal scene for readers back home, concluding that it was “not uncommon to see a member standing in the door of the cloakroom, in full sight of the galleries, a towel around his neck and a nice coating of lather on his chin, waiting for his name to be reached, while the roll is being called.”
In the 20th century, the House Office Buildings provided Representatives with their first office space, but the change did not diminish the cloakrooms’ popularity. By then, they had become clubhouses more than glorified coatracks, and continued to be easygoing retreats for Republicans and Democrats. Still, times were changing, and even clubhouses changed with them. In 1924, newspapers reported breathlessly on newly elected New Jersey Representative Mary Norton’s arrival at the Capitol: “The sanctity of the House Democratic cloak room, hitherto exclusive to man, where members lounge, smoke and chat when debate on the floor waxes dull, was invaded for the first time today by a woman in her own right.” Fifty years later, Congresswomen in the cloakrooms could still cause a stir. In the 1970s, when Helen Meyner, another New Jersey Representative, stretched out on one of the old couches, shoes off and eyes closed, “there was utter shocked silence,” recalled one staffer, at “a woman who had invaded [the men's] locker room and thought nothing of it.”
Cloakrooms remained hubs of communication. House Pages staffed telephones, took messages to and from Members, sped off to collect documents, and ran errands between the Chamber and Members’ offices. For decades each cloakroom became a legislative listening post, a place where Members and staff could call or stop by for an update on floor debate. Cloakroom ledgers from the 1980s record widely varied notes from leaders to rank-and-file Members passing through: legislative updates, picnic invitations, and announcements about an amazing new technology called “e-mail.” In the 21st century, texting and smartphones reduced the cloakroom’s frantic pace of relaying information. However, what made the cloakrooms truly part of the legislative process—an informal, convivial environment for discussing thorny legislative issues—remained unchanged even when the barber chairs and “lemonade” passed into history.
Sources: House Journal, 23 December 1857; Washington Post, 7 October 1879; Douglas Walter Bristol Jr., Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Los Angeles Times, 17 April 1901; Detroit Free Press, 17 December 1872 and 3 August 1909; New York Tribune, 21 January 1887; Los Angeles Times, 30 November 1893; Baltimore Sun, 24 December 1924.Follow @USHouseHistory