Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

How Loud Is a Gavel?

Gavels for the Speaker/tiles/non-collection/1/1-08-bouquet-2007_111_003pq.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection
About this object
Gus Cook, (left) an engineer at the U.S. Capitol, hands over an armload of gavels to Speaker Sam Rayburn in anticipation of the House’s return from its 1943 summer recess.
The commanding rap of a gavel punctuates each meeting of the House of Representatives. House gavels have always been practical wooden mallets, perfect for grabbing the attention of a loud, large group of legislators. But how loud is a gavel in the House?

Gavels were first used in the House long before amplification, when a raucous crowd and imperfect acoustics combined to make controlling the room a challenge even to the most powerful Speaker. Speakers of the House became closely associated with their gavels. Longtime Speaker Sam Rayburn said that “in the Speakership, the gavel becomes almost part of the office. It’s habit. Any gavel you use has a lot of sentiment attached.”

Gavels for Speaker Bankhead/tiles/non-collection/1/1-08-bankheadgavels-2008_290_001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection
About this object
Architect of the Capitol David Lynn (right) supervised E. S. Kenyon making gavels in the Capitol's machine shop. The gavels were intended for Speaker William Bankhead for the 76th Congress.
In some cases, gavels become extensions of a Speaker’s personality. Speaker James G. Blaine gave his gavel such a workout that it was known as the “hammer,” and it was noted by a right-minded Page who worked in the Capitol in 1872 described that it was much louder than the Senate’s gavel. Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine was such a loud and enthusiastic gavel wielder that he broke right through the felt the Speaker’s Rostrum desktop and cracked the wood below. When the felt was replaced in 1891, Reed fans took splinters as souvenirs. In 1906, Speaker Joe Cannon pounded so hard that the head of the gavel flew off, narrowly missing the clerks sitting just below him. Speaker Champ Clark broke two gavels during a single session, and John Nance Garner broke three in his first week as Speaker. Tired of the pattern, he reportedly ordered an “unbreakable” gavel to be made of black walnut. (His constituents had another solution.)

Today, the House’s gavels are made of hard maple, finished with lacquer. An accompanying sounding board promotes maximum effect and minimum damage to the rostrum. To hear how modern gavels sound, listen to the opening of any day in the House, for the familiar sound that precedes “The House will come to order.”