In 1794, the House amended its rules to include the stipulation that an official seal be used for “all writs, warrants, or subpoenas, issued by the order of House.” More than two centuries later, the Clerk of the House continues to impress the House Seal, whose use is protected by law, on the House’s official documents.
In the 18th century, when the House added this language to its rules, seals were important tools for authenticating documents. Impressed or adhered next to someone’s signature, it added a sense of security to official papers. Seals were more difficult to fake than handwriting, and they were almost impossible to remove without leaving evidence of the attempt. The process of affixing a seal permanently altered the document. Two metal parts of a seal press sandwiched a piece of paper, either the document itself or a small separate piece of fancier paper. A sharply carved or engraved piece, called the die or matrix, fit exactly with its convex image, the counter-die. Pressed together, they created a raised design in the paper’s fibers. Red wax or a pre-cut sealing wafer attached the embossed paper next to a document’s signature, often with a decorative silk ribbon beneath that. Removing any part of the package damaged the document, making it somewhat tamper-proof. The term “seal” might refer to the die that makes the impression, or to the impression itself.
The earliest-known design for the House Seal came into being in 1830. Engraver and amateur architect Robert Lanphier carved the oldest surviving die, for which the House paid him the considerable sum of $100. News reports called Lanphier’s work the “new Seal,” and records show that the House had an older die (the design of which is not known) sharpened and repaired just a few years before. Perhaps by 1830 it was beyond fixing. Seals did take a beating judging by the House’s supplies: in one year alone, the Clerk of the House used 260 pounds of sealing wax and 130 pounds of sealing wafers.
Lanphier’s 1830 die depicted the Capitol from the northeast, surrounded by 24 stars that corresponded to the number of states at the time. His engraving of the Capitol met with great success nationally. “For chasteness of design and skill and taste in its execution,” wrote one newspaper, “we have seen but few specimens of American art that can surpass it.” Lanphier based his design on popular prints of the Capitol widely available in the 1820s and carved it in steel, an expensive but durable choice.
When the design was complete, Maryland engraver Edward Stabler made a press for the new seal, sending Clerk of the House Matthew St. Clair Clarke (who had been struggling with the old press for eight years) into ecstasies of delight. “The Impression made is far better than that of any other Press I have ever seen,” he wrote to Stabler, “and being made on the paper itself is perfectly indelible.”
By 1912, however, years of heavy use deteriorated even the hardest steel, and the image of the Capitol Lanphier engraved was no longer accurate. Since the 1860s, the Capitol’s extensions and larger dome gave the building a very different profile. Representative John Floyd of Arkansas noted the seal was “so worn as to make impressions taken therefrom almost illegible” and introduced a resolution directing the Clerk to commission a new one. Oddly, the resolution updated the number of stars to reflect the 48 states in the Union but used the old view of the Capitol.
A half century later, the House Seal needed replacement again. No longer needed to secure papers, the House Seal continued to authenticate House documents. In 1963, the House directed creation of a new seal with 50 stars and a depiction of the Capitol “as it currently appears” from the vantage of the House side of the building. This design’s use has continued into the 21st century on official documents.
Another emblem, based on a different seal, is also commonly seen in the House. In the 20th century, the design of the Great Seal of the United States also gained familiarity as an unofficial congressional insignia. The earliest House Collection example, showing an eagle spreading its wings beneath thirteen stars and clutching arrows and olive branches in fierce talons, dates from 1929 and appeared on tickets for visitors who came to see British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald address the House. In the 1960s, the national seal became especially popular on large plaques and signs, modified with the words “U.S. House of Representatives” or “Member of Congress” circling the design and giving the appearance of an official seal of Congress. Today, the eagle design appears on websites, mousepads, stationery, and newsletters. But the House Seal, kept in the custody of the Clerk of the House, remains the only official imprimatur of the institution.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Sources: H. Res. 586, 62nd Cong., 2nd sess. (1912); H.Res. 560, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (1963); Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), 30 October 1830; National Archives, “Holding It Together: Before Passwords—Ribbons and Seals for Document Security,” 14 October 2021, https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2021/10/14/holding-it-together-before-passwords-ribbons-and-seals-for-document-security/.Follow @USHouseHistory