Carpets have played an important role in interior design for both private and public buildings. During the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, the amount of carpeting that covered a floor signified the owner’s wealth and prominence. In official buildings, flooring anchored rooms with designs that mirrored their ceilings. With intentionally selected symbols, colors, and other elements incorporated into the furniture and decorations of the House of Representatives, one may wonder if this practice applies to the flooring as well.
Despite its fundamentally utilitarian role to muffle sound and warm feet, the House’s carpeting story turns out to be one of art as well as practicality, just like the furniture and decorations in the building. Over two centuries, flooring decisions in the House have pivoted between form (symbolism, aesthetics, and glamour) and function (practicality, cost, and durability). Sometimes aesthetics won out; other times, the pendulum swung toward utilitarian concerns. Unsurprisingly, the House’s symbolic and legislative heart, the chamber, garnered the most discussion and debate about carpeting.
Intermittent records of the House’s carpet choices date to the late 18th century, when Congress met for the first time in its temporary Philadelphia home, the County Courthouse, now known as Congress Hall. Form and function found a balance in the government’s new home. Carpeting played an essential aesthetic role for important public rooms. At the same time, only the wealthy could afford fanciful floor coverings that were not abundant, mass produced, or easily acquired. Congress split the difference between the stateliness of its position and the size of its bank account, choosing colorful “Scotch carpeting” over more elegant options. A flat European woolen material, also known as ingrain carpet—Scotch carpeting won favor in late 18th-century America for its low pile and affordability. It was even reversible. Scotch rugs soon appeared underfoot everywhere, even in the House of Representatives.
When the capital moved to Washington, DC, in 1800, it did not record the fate of the House’s Philadelphia flooring. Worn from years of use, the rug could have been cut up and sold, as a scholar speculated might have been the case with the Senate’s carpet. Carpet continued its purpose as a sound-dampening tool for the House. To this end, in 1821 Representative Silas Wood of New York, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings, issued a report that recommended “carpeting the galleries to muffle the sounds there.”
In 1838, the choice of flooring and overall interior design of the Old Hall of the House took aesthetics and quality into consideration. A Washington newspaper mentioned a new “handsome Brussels carpet,” which “add[ed] much to the neatness and beauty of its . . . appearance.”
The spittoons scattered around the chamber—not to mention the Members with bad aim—presented a hazard to the stately carpeting. In his 1842 account, peering down from the House visitors’ gallery, Charles Dickens attested to the dreadful state of the carpet and even advised readers not to pick up fallen items from the floor without a glove. Better yet, Dickens urged, avoid looking down at the sodden rug entirely.
In 1853, the Capitol extension project was underway, and Montgomery C. Meigs became Engineer in Charge. Meigs, who immersed himself in “the study of architecture, acoustics, heating, ventilation, and decorating,” seemed that he might favor carpeting throughout the expanded Capitol. He wanted the House Chamber ready in time for the opening of the 35th Congress. However, as work neared completion in 1857, a hailstorm broke 35 large sheets of glass over the new chamber and delayed the carpet installation. Carpenters laid the wooden subflooring and then waited for the $1,800 wall-to-wall carpeting to arrive from the mill in Clinton, Massachusetts. The Clerk of the House, unhappy about not picking the carpet himself, took revenge by choosing the many spittoons that would sit throughout the chamber.
Meigs thought of the surrounding corridors and rooms as extensions of the chamber, but he gave them a different treatment. As early as 1854, he sought flooring options other than woven materials for specific rooms, and in 1855, decided on hard-wearing encaustic tiles. The tile designs resembled an elaborately woven carpet, but Meigs also chose them for their dazzling light effects, bolder colors, and durability. Dazzle aside, Representatives insisted floors needed carpet in the winter months for warmth, so wall-to-wall carpet covered some of the chamber’s nearby rooms for part of the year. In the summer the carpeting left, and the cool tile lay bare.
By the turn of the 20th century, the rage for floor carpeting waned in Americans’ homes, but was still going strong in Congress. In 1901, the House re-carpeted the chamber in supreme style, choosing Wilton velvet, a richly colored and expensive cut pile. The Clark and Davenport firm wove a newly created design. When it was unrolled, critics praised the rug as the best to ever adorn the House.
The House removed the wool carpeting from the chamber floor in the 1920s and replaced it with matting to ease the sweltering heat. In the early 20th century, the House also donned functional flooring with a twist—rubber! The Atlanta Constitution noted that “blue and buff will be the cheerful floor color note for sessions of the next house, but it is the result of an eye for economy rather beauty.” House Clerk William Tyler Page claimed the thrifty flooring saved about $10,000 in 12 years’ time. Where tobacco stains and cigarette and cigar smudges necessitated frequent replacement of carpets, rubber cleaned up just fine. The other motive to replace the carpet with rubber was to “muffle the steps of members in the heat of gesticulatory, stamping debate.”
From 1949 to 1950, the House renovated its chamber. While structural problems necessitated the construction, Congress seized the opportunity to update the vast space’s look for a Cold War era. The carpet, along with other interior décor, changed from old Victorian designs to a federal-inspired style that reinforced the nation’s founding as a democratic republic. Replacements over the next half-century largely hewed to similarly patriotic themes. But the patterns did not please everyone: Joe Bartlett, who served as a Reading Clerk in the 1950s, remembered that one carpet, bought at a bargain price, “was the most horrible stuff you ever saw in your life.”
By 1999, the House wanted to keep current with the next wave of technology, upgrading the wiring beneath the House floor. This process required changing the carpet for the first time in nearly 25 years. In addition, one newspaper reported, “the House enhancements [were] in part, to help Members look their best on television.” Out went the “old, blue-patterned carpet” and in came new flooring that provided a “brighter backdrop for television.” The House ripped out the antiquated carpet. One journalist reported that scores of Members begged for a piece of the old rug “that was the scene of so many partisan brawls on the House floors.” The scraps made such popular mementos that the House had only enough to give to its current Members. Former Members who wanted in on the memorabilia found themselves empty-handed.
Two centuries of congressional flooring transformations were made for utility, style, or economy. The next time cameras pan the House Chamber, look beneath the furniture and consider the colorful history of the carpet underfoot.
Sources: Report on Sanitary Condition of the Capitol and Administration of the Architect of the Capitol, 53rd Cong., 3rd sess., 2 March 1895, H. Rep. 1980; Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, 2014 January – June Semiannual Report (Washington, D.C., 113th Cong. 2014); William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. GPO, 2001); Susan H. Anderson, The Most Splendid Carpet (National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1978); Washington Post, 14 July 1901; Atlanta Constitution, 10 Oct 1931; Henry Wood and Charles Dickens, Change for the American Notes: in Letters from London to New-York (New-York: Harper & Bros., 1843); “Joe Bartlett Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 2006; Roll Call, 16 December 1999, 19 June 2000, 22 April 2010, 15 April 2014; John Burrows, “Good Old-Fashioned Wall-to Wall?” Old-House Interiors, Summer 1995; Vanessa Habib, “Scotch Carpets in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Textile History, Vol. 28, Issue 2 (1997): 161–175; Guide-Book to the Industrial Exhibition (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1851); Margaret Swain, “A Note on Scotch Carpets,” Furniture History, Vol. 14 (1978): 61–62; Rev. Mr. Whitaker, The History of Manchester: In Four Books, (London: J. Murray, 1773).Follow @USHouseHistory