The year 1913 dawned with a conundrum. There were 401 desks and chairs in the crowded House Chamber and 440 people who needed a seat when Congress convened in the spring. How could each Member of Congress claim a chair?
This problem was not a surprise. After the House Office Building opened in 1908, Members worked in their offices but continued to keep desks in the House Chamber. The 1910 U.S. Census expanded House membership from 394 to 435 voting Representatives (plus additional nonvoting Members), setting in motion a process that would eventually cap voting membership at 435. A House commission fretted over the crowded conditions. It proposed, paradoxically, to make the chamber smaller. Members would face each other on long benches, seated close together, as in the British House of Commons. Bench boosters predicted that ending assigned seats and desks would help the House deliberate better. “So long as each member had a desk in front of him,” reported one journalist, “the temptation existed for many to spend their time in private or political correspondence, instead of giving attention to the matters under discussion.”
The shrunken chamber scheme circulated for two years, during which the House never adjourned long enough to complete the necessary renovations. The November 1912 elections came and went without a resolution. Time was short, and a sense of panic leaked into the newspapers. “No Fixed Seats for Lawmakers” blared headlines as far away as the Rocky Mountains. Suggestions ranged from the practical—camp stools—to the fanciful—swinging from the chandeliers. But what about the time-honored tradition of the desk lottery, which gave every Representative, new or old, a chance at a good seat? Without a solution to the seating shortage, it seemed incomprehensible that the luck of the draw could exile senior Members to folding chairs while freshmen wrote their names on desks.
In early January 1913, with time running out, the House hastily adopted a resolution to “rearrange and reconstruct” the chamber. Capitol Superintendent Elliott Woods had to find space for the new Members, for less than $25,000, by April, with no further direction. Woods decided unassigned, auditorium-style seating was the fastest solution.
The House turned to the Francis H. Bacon Company for the auditorium-style seats. Bacon was well known in Washington circles and quickly provided 450 “large, roomy chairs arranged in each case in the form of a ‘bench’ construction.” They were cane-seated and leather-backed for maximum ventilation and comfort. Rows would be separated by enough space for easy access to the aisle from a middle seat.
Carpenters trooped into the chamber in early March and carried out the desks and chairs. A month later they finished installing 450 seats, just a week before the House convened.
On April 7, the House’s opening day began with most of its familiar rituals intact. The crowds that filled the galleries from early morning could predict each step: the Clerk gaveled, the Chaplain prayed, the Members elected the Speaker and officers of the House. Then, when Members would normally name their seats in the lottery, a ritual that had become “a pretty spectacle” on past opening days, there was “vast confusion incident to the new benches.”
A. Mitchell Palmer, the Democratic Caucus chair, stepped forward and explained. From now on, instead of desks with a Member’s name assigned to it, the seating process would be what the papers called “a free-for-all, first-come-first-served” experience every single day. The “big moment when a new member opened his desk in full sight of his fellowmen” was gone forever.
And just like that, 124 years after Members first began claiming seats in the First Federal Congress in New York City, the age of desks was over. “Members jokingly called to each other asking how they liked the new seats,” reported the papers, “and the old timers tried to figure out how they could ever get used to this radical innovation.” They did get used to it, and by the next day, Representatives walked into the House Chamber and sat in any unnamed seat they wanted.
Sources: Elliott Woods, Report of the Superintendent of the United States Capitol Building and Grounds, 63rd Cong., 1st sess., H. Doc. 1009 (21 October 1913); Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, SD), 12 September 1912, 7 April 1913; Atlanta Constitution, 24 March 1913; Boston Daily Globe, 6 April 1913; Butler Weekly Times (Butler, MO), 19 April 1913; Christian Science Monitor, 29 March 1913; Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), 29 January 1911; Daily People (New York, NY), 11 September 1912; Dallas Morning News, 7 March 1913; Delaware City Press, 11 April 1913; Denver Rocky Mountain News, 7 March 1913; Grand Rapids Press, 3 December 1912; Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 March 1913; Los Angeles Times, 5 May 1912; Nashville Tennessean, 13 September 1912; New York Times, 8 April 1913; New-York Tribune, 20 January 1913; San Francisco Chronicle, 8 March 1913; The Sun (Baltimore, MD), 5 April 1911; William Allen, History of the United States Capitol (Washington, DC: Government Publishing Office, 2001).Follow @USHouseHistory