Page Origins

The word “page” originated in English usage in the fifteenth century to denote attendants or courtiers, boys who waited on persons of nobility or social rank. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term was not applied to legislative messengers until it came into common usage in North America in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Unlike many other elements of American legislative tradition, Pages were not inherited from English parliamentary precedent. In Britain, military veterans or pensioners performed tasks associated with Page work. Employing boys to serve as legislative messengers and errand runners was a development described by author Bill Severn as “uniquely American.”2

A Scene in the Hall of Representatives Washington/tiles/non-collection/1/1origins_civilwar_hc2006_106_003.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
This 1861 scene illustrates the contentious House on the eve of the Civil War. In the foreground, a Page bearing papers wears an expression of consternation as he looks toward the man lunging forward with a sweeping gesture. In popular journals, artists used Pages to comment on the proceedings, in this case echoing the article’s disapproval of the lack of propriety in the House Chamber.
The use of messengers in legislative bodies in North America dates at least to the Continental Congress. Just three days after the First Continental Congress convened in September 1774 in Philadelphia, in response to Britain’s sanctions against the colonies, the body appointed two messengers (who would also serve as doorkeepers).3 From that point forward, America’s earliest national legislative bodies employed messengers: the Second Continental Congress, the Confederation Congresses, and, by one account, the Constitutional Convention in 1787.4 Messengers were also appointed in the very first session of the First Federal Congress that convened in New York City in April 1789. Though historians do not know with certainty, messengers in this era were all likely adults.

The practice of using legislative messengers evolved over the better part of half a century, from America’s War for Independence until the late 1820s when, according to official House records, a Page corps employing young boys and teenagers began to take shape in the U.S. House of Representatives. But in the unsettled economic environment following the Panic of 1837, a House panel responsible for the institution’s expenditures, the Committee on Accounts, delved into the practice and associated costs of employing both adult messengers and Pages; the House had never set a formal number, budget, or guidelines to administer the program.5 The committee’s report provides the first snapshot of paging’s origins, which are difficult to pinpoint.

Interviewing “old and experienced” officers of the House, the Committee on Accounts determined that their predecessors first employed boy Pages when Congress convened in the permanent seat of the federal government in the District of Columbia in November 1800.6 The earliest first-hand account of a House Page dates to December 1817, at the opening of the 15th Congress (1817–1819). The House then met in the Old Brick Capitol, its temporary quarters on the grounds of the modern day U.S. Supreme Court while the Capitol was being repaired after British troops had burned it in 1814. Representative Thomas Hubbard of New York described the Hall of the House in a letter home to his wife, Phebe. “We have a charming little boy about 12 years old who waits on the House,” Hubbard explained, “and when a member rises to submit a resolution the little fellow leaps around lightly and with the swiftness of an arrow stands by his side. . . .” The boy, named Oswald, stood by any member who addressed the House and “if anything is submitted in writing, he takes it and conveys it to the clerk who sits under the Speaker’s chair, then takes his leave & watches till another member rises when the same ceremony takes place again.” The Page also poured glasses of water for long-winded speechmakers, Hubbard recounted. Some other early Pages may have been the two young sons and nephew of the longtime House Doorkeeper Thomas Claxton. Starting in the 1820s, House expense reports began to list other boys being paid as “runners” or “attendants.”7

Washington, D.C. - The National Legislature - The Sergeant-at-Arms Bringing in Absentee Members/tiles/non-collection/1/1origins_1880s_hc2008_033_005.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
This 1881 image depicts the rounding-up of Members, most likely for an evening vote or quorum call. Pages dash in and out of the chamber, dodging the incoming procession of delinquent Members being brought back by the Sergeant at Arms, who wields the House Mace.
In the nineteenth century, Page boys in both the House and Senate were as young as eight and perhaps as old as 16.8 Employing young boys, rather than adults or older teenagers, to perform mundane, often menial, tasks had several advantages. Young boys would be compliant and less likely than older teens to be obtrusive or truculent when given direction. And, according to the committee, in the cramped hall of the House, there was an advantage to employing small, fleet-footed boys who could easily dart among the labyrinth of Members’ desks.9 During his first term in the House, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts even jotted in his diary that Pages were often akin to “tripping Mercuries who bear the resolutions and amendments between the members and the chair.”10

It was during Adams’s House career (1831–1848) that the use of Pages expanded in the chamber. The number remained modest for years, with no more than three Pages serving through the 20th Congress (1827–1829). But the ranks grew and in 1838, when the committee produced its report, 18 Pages were on the House payroll. The Page corps’ expansion paralleled the House’s growth, which swelled from 106 Representatives in 1800 to 242 by 1838. Some of the increase, too, was attributed to longer House sessions and the growing paper demands of the institution following the development of a formal standing committee system in the decades after the War of 1812. Pages carried out laborious, repetitive work that required folding and preparing the mailing of innumerable speeches, reports, and copies of other official documents, often until late into the night and long after the House had adjourned for the day.11 The economic crisis in 1837 may have been a primary engine for the growth of the Page ranks, as Representatives sought to provide income for the needy. “Most of this increase,” observed the Accounts Committee, “has been effected by members of the House, in their desire to serve deserving and sometimes destitute orphan boys.”12

The committee recommended that no more than 12 Pages be employed by the Clerk of the House at the princely salary of $1.50 per day. The report also recommended giving the Clerk oversight of the appointment and removal of Pages—a change from the longstanding, tacit arrangement in which the Doorkeeper managed both older messengers and Page boys.13 On April 4, 1838, after lengthy debate, the House agreed to cap the number of Pages at 12 in the 26th Congress (1839–1841), setting the age range from 10 to 16. And despite the earlier recommendation, the appointment and supervision powers stayed with the Doorkeeper, “with the approbation of the Speaker.”14

Thaddeus Stevens Closing the Debate in the House/tiles/non-collection/1/1origins_stevens_impeach_hc2009_129_001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania delivers his closing remarks on the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. In a commonly used pictorial device, the Pages in this image model the desired response of the audience, listening with rapt attention to what is regarded as the last speech of the leader of the impeachment forces.
Just three years later, in June 1841, the House created the Select Committee on Contingent Expenses to examine the House budget.15 As a cost-cutting measure, the committee recommended, and the House approved in early 1842, reducing the number of Pages to eight, which when combined with the 12 older messengers on the Doorkeeper’s payroll, could be done without “inconvenience to members of the House or detriment to the public service.”16 In subsequent years the Page ranks resumed their growth.

From its beginning, political patronage dominated the Page appointment process.17 In the nineteenth century, House Pages were overwhelmingly local boys. Influential Representatives or House officials prevailed upon the Doorkeeper to select their sons or those of their friends, political acquaintances, supporters, and key constituents. Many Pages also were the children of Senators, Capitol Police officers, or executive branch officials. Persistent individuals, with no Capitol Hill connections, who persuaded a Member or the House Doorkeeper to admit them into the Page ranks were equally common. Also common in the 1800s was the appointment of boys who came from heartbreaking circumstances for whom the income would be vital. This practice took hold almost from the beginning, as the 1842 report noted with disapproval: “Members frequently take interest in a promising boy, or have their sympathies awakened by his orphan and destitute situation, and press the officer of the House to engage him in this service … and in this way, from causes having their origin in the best feelings of the human heart, the expenses of the House are unnecessarily augmented.”18 Until the turn of the twentieth century, regardless of social rank, House Page boys tended to be from Washington, D.C., and its environs.

1907 Page Uniform/tiles/non-collection/2/2011_086_002PQ1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Todd Lowe, Roger Lowe, and Nancy Lowe, Grandchildren of R. T. Davis, Sr.
About this object
A blue wool Page uniform, which was inspired by military styles of the period and includes a mandarin collar jacket (with “Page” emblazoned on the collar), full-length trousers, and suspenders, belonged to Roy Tasco Davis, Jr., who served in 1907.
Page appointments could last for two, three, or four years, and in some cases, even longer. The majority party controlled most of the appointments, and periods of one-party rule meant remarkably stable employment. But party turnover in a patronage culture meant that turning-point elections sometimes made a clean sweep of the Page ranks. For instance, when Democrats lost nearly 125 seats in the cataclysmic 1894 elections, 32 of the 33 Pages then serving (having been appointed by Democratic Representatives) reportedly lost their jobs.19

Patronage lasted into the twentieth century, when formal Democratic and Republican party committees assumed control over most political appointments. But that process changed in the program’s latter decades as the majority of Pages were drawn from congressional districts across the country. As the program gained a national reputation, Pages tended to secure appointments based on their academic achievement, civic engagement, or other qualities which made them stand out as likely candidates.

By nineteenth-century standards, paging proved a lucrative enterprise. In the 1830s, Members often awarded Pages a bonus of as much as $250 at the end of each Congress—in addition to their daily wage of $1.50. “At the close of a session, when the warmth of political excitement has subsided, and the asperity of party conflict is mellowed by the kindly feelings of the parting hour,” observed the 1842 committee report on Pages, “it is difficult to resist the eloquent, though sometimes silent appeals of our obliging attendants; and … the practice has grown up of making an extra appropriation.” Looking to save money where it could, the House adopted the committee recommendation that “compensation should be fixed and firm,” strongly discouraging the bonuses while boosting Page pay to $2 per day.20

House Page Uniform/tiles/non-collection/1/1origins_2005uniform_2005_198_001PQ1_dark.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Marshall Wills 
About this object
The navy blazer, grey trousers, white shirt, and red, white, and blue striped tie that were worn by Marshall Wills in 2005 represent the Page look that was standardized around the 1980s.
Pages could live comfortably in Washington on that salary, but many supplemented it or even multiplied it by several factors with side work. Before the House banned the practice in the late 1800s, Pages would fill booklets with Representatives’ autographs on the floor and sell them to visitors for a handsome profit. Pages even made money by providing House Members with copies of their speeches and those of their colleagues. Often a Representative designated a Page to circulate a subscription sheet for his speech among other Members. The Page earned a commission based on the total orders gathered: rousing oratory meant more money. “The boys were able to estimate the value of a measure as it was introduced,” recalled Augustus Thomas, who paged in 1871, “and by knowing the chairman of the committee to which it would be referred to get far in advance the promise of speeches that would be forthcoming. There was a kind of real political sagacity about it.”21 One news account noted that a Page made $400 providing copies of a particularly stirring address on the Tariff of 1890 by Ways and Means Chairman and future President William McKinley of Ohio. “Every big tariff speech is money in the pocket of one or more of the pages, and recent debate on federal elections has been a perfect gold mine for the boys,” opined the Aberdeen (SD) Daily News.22

The rate of official pay remained relatively constant for many decades. By the turn of the twentieth century, Pages were paid $2.50 per day. By the 1920s, the daily rate was $3.30, which was raised in 1929 to $4 per day, where it remained into the 1940s. By the latter part of the twentieth century, as boarding and schooling costs rose, Pages were paid at an annual rate: in the mid-1960s, roughly $5,000 per year; by 1984, $9,500; and by early in the twenty-first century, just more than $20,000.23


2Bill Severn, Democracy’s Messengers: The Capitol Pages (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1975): 7. Somewhat remarkably, there have only ever been two book-length studies written on the history of Capitol Pages. Severn’s book was published in 1975, and is geared toward juveniles. Darryl J. Gonzalez’s The Children Who Ran for Congress: A History of Congressional Pages (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), is the most comprehensive history available, especially in its discussions about the development of school programs for House and Senate Pages.

3Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 10.

4Ibid., 10. For the original reference to the use of a messenger at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, see Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (Farrand’s Records), 25 May 1787, Volume 1: 2.

5Committee on Accounts, “Duties of Officers of House of Representatives,” H. Rep. 750, 25th Cong., 2nd sess. (31 March 1838): 1–11.

6“Duties of Officers of House of Representatives”: 2.

7Thomas Hubbard to Phebe Hubbard, 25 December 1817, Papers of Thomas Hill Hubbard, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. For an account of early Pages related to the House Doorkeeper, see Christian Hines, Early Recollections of Washington City (Washington, D.C.: N.P., 1866; reprinted by the Junior League of Washington, 1981): 76–77; see also Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 13–14. For more on the House Doorkeepers, see

8Numerous press accounts suggest some Pages served into their late teens or even early twenties, but it seems equally likely that correspondents sitting in the Press Gallery and recording this information may have confused young adult messengers, on the payroll as full-time employees, with teenage Pages.

9Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 15–17; “Duties of Officers of House of Representatives”: 2.

10Allan Nevins, ed., The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794–1845: American Diplomacy, and Political, Social, and Intellectual Life from Washington to Polk (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951): 430. The reference is contained in Adams’s diary entry for 20 February 1832.

11“Duties of Officers of House of Representatives”: 3.

12Ibid., 2.

13Ibid., 4–5, 10.

14House Journal, 25th Cong., 2nd sess. (4 April 1838): 701–703; Congressional Globe, 25th Cong., 2nd sess. (4 April 1838): 281.

15Select Committee on Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives, “Report on the Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives,” H. Rep. 30, 27th Cong., 2nd sess. (5 January 1842): 1–78; quotation on page 1.

16Ibid., 6. The report went on to note, “The ready transaction of the business of the House, the committee believe [sic], indispensably requires the services of such attendants; while, on the other hand, their number ought not be swollen beyond what necessity demands.”

17Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 17–19.

18“Duties of Officers of House of Representatives”: 7.

19“Precocious Pages: Unhappy Young Democrats in Washington—The Pages of the House of Representatives Are in Despair,” 2 December 1894, Los Angeles Times: 22.

20“Report on the Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives”: 8.

21Augustus Thomas, The Print of My Remembrance (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922): 45.

22“How Congressional Pages Make Money,” 18 September 1890, Aberdeen Daily News (South Dakota): n.p.

23Mildred Lehmann Amer, “Pages of the United States Congress,” 25 April 1984, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report No. 84-73-GOV (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress): 10; see also “Study of the General Welfare and Education of Congressional Pages,” U.S. House of Representatives, H. Rep. 1945, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 January 1965).