Page duties changed greatly over the course of two centuries—sometimes expanding, other times contracting, to adapt to new technologies. In the nineteenth century, Pages engaged in a broad array of activities because so few support staff were employed on the floor and by individual Members or House committees. But as the House professionalized in the twentieth century, the Page program adjusted and became more routinized. Regardless of the tasks involved, the underlying goal—as for all House Floor staff—was to assist in the smooth functioning of the legislative process.
In the nineteenth century, before the boom in staff and office space, each Member’s individual desk on the House Floor was his “Washington office.” The floor was a beehive of activity and nearly the exclusive focus of the typical Page’s daily routine. Newspaper correspondent Frank Carpenter recorded the scene in 1886 (during the 49th Congress) as he watched House Pages, identifiable by numbered silver buttons affixed to their lapels, responding to the summons—usually by hand clap—of Members: “[T]hey run in and out of the halls, now darting through the aisles under the very nose of a member who is making a great speech, now carrying great armfuls of books to one Congressman, and now taking a letter to post for another, or bringing a glass of water to the man who is speaking.”24
Aside from the ever-present task of running messages and paperwork to and from Members’ desks, Pages performed a litany of other housekeeping chores: providing snuff for Members; lighting candles, lamps, and, often, Members’ cigars; preparing the Representatives’ correspondence for mailing; filling ink wells; and sharpening quill pens. In the decades before an electronic bell and signal system was installed in the House, Pages roamed the Capitol corridors shouting summons to the floor for pending votes. Often, the House Doorkeeper dispatched them to Members’ private residences to rouse and retrieve them for late night votes or an unexpected quorum call. During winters, Pages routinely hauled wood into the Old Hall of the House to tend to its four fireplaces. And before the Capitol Guide Service was created, Pages gave innumerable tours to Capitol visitors into every conceivable nook and cranny of the building—as one recalled, “from dome to crypt.”25
As they did well into the twentieth century, many Pages worked long hours in the document folding room in the Capitol basement when the House was out of session. When a telegraph system was introduced in the Capitol in the mid-nineteenth century, a handful of Pages were designated as “telegraph Pages,” tasked with running messages back and forth from the office (located just off the House Floor) to awaiting Representatives and House officers. A similarly small distinguished group, dubbed “riding Pages,” delivered messages across town to other government agencies on horseback or in horse-drawn buggies—and were the envy of Pages left in the chamber.26 William Tyler Page (who would go on to serve as one of the House’s most revered Clerks) first won an appointment as a Page in 1881. He recalled more than a half century later, “Riding pages were equipped with ponies and mail pouches. Telephones had not yet been invented and communications with Executive Departments was [sic] by mail, sometimes a slow method. Consequently riding Pages were employed more promptly to dispatch letters of an urgent nature to the departments.”27 Yet technology—in the form of an enhanced telegraph system and later telephones—would transform this method of communication, too. By the late nineteenth century, underground cables were laid to connect the Capitol with the White House and other government departments, making communications nearly instantaneous and greatly reducing the need to dispatch Pages down to the far ends of Pennsylvania or Independence Avenues.28
In the nineteenth century, Pages typically arrived for duty in the House Chamber at 10 a.m. to prepare for the legislative session which, on normal days, gaveled to order at noon. Routine business generally ended by 5 or 6 p.m., but sometimes important measures—or more frequently, Members’ desire to speak on the floor for the Congressional Record—kept Pages at their posts until the wee hours of the morning. “Night sessions were pretty hard on the boys,” recalled Augustus Thomas, a 14-year-old Page in the 41st Congress (1869–1871). “We had come from school and home life, where thoughtful mothers would shepherd us at bedtime, and the night session, with its droning monotony of soporific drivel intended only for print, would sometimes lag on until two in the morning.” Pages dozed on the marble steps of the Speaker’s Rostrum, taking turns standing sentry, but when attendance was particularly thin, a late-night orator might make a point by demanding a call of the House. Pages then fanned across the nighttime city, clutching lists of Member home addresses, while the House briefly recessed as “these process servers moved through the city hunting the delinquents.”29
The House is an institution that operates under carefully constructed rules and procedures. Each staff member who assists in the legislative process knows his or her role. As the House modernized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the work of Pages in the chamber became much more regimented and defined. First among equals, however, was the Speaker’s Page, an individual who attended solely to the needs of the Speaker both on and off the floor of the House; often, the Speaker’s Page appointment lasted for an entire year. One of his or her duties was to escort the Speaker onto the House Floor to preside, issue a ruling, or cast a vote.30 When the House adjourned or stood in recess, the Page would work directly in the Speaker’s Office.
The vast majority of Pages were assigned as “bench Pages,” sometimes simply referred to as “errand runners.” These Pages were responsible each morning for placing copies of the Congressional Record on shelves under Members’ seats, delivering messages and documents to Members on the floor and, beginning in the early twentieth century, to the new House office buildings. Pages were managed by the Page Overseer, who was chosen from among the Pages by seniority. Both the Democratic and Republican side of the chamber had a desk in the rear corner of the chamber, and from these posts the overseers assigned Pages to attend to Members on the floor as messages came in or when Members requested a Page by pressing an electronic call button on the arm of their seat. Before cable or internet news, some individuals were designated as “newspaper Pages,” and racked hundreds of daily papers from around the country on tall, A-frame easels spread throughout the Speaker’s Lobby. For Members’ convenience, the Pages arranged them by region and state.31
A series of oral histories with Pages from the mid-twentieth century suggests that bench Page service proved a training ground for advancement in the Page ranks.32Joe Bartlett of West Virginia, who started as a bench Page in 1941, was promoted to Page Overseer, and then held the post of Republican Chief of Pages from 1945 to 1953, directing the work of several dozen House Pages. Bartlett later served as a longtime House reading clerk. As a Page on the floor, Bartlett innovated the method of “skeletonizing”—or stripping duplicate copies of speeches from extra copies of the Record, a service that the Representatives found indispensable: “This was before duplication printing. And so to be able to give a Member 50 copies of a choice item, he was very appreciative. This is why they knew my name.”33
Glenn Rupp, an Ohio native, paged nearly a decade earlier, from 1932 to 1936. After a year of yeoman’s work on the House Floor, he won a choice assignment as one of two Pages who worked with the House Doorkeeper’s Office to man the entrances into the House Chamber off the Speaker’s Lobby. During a career that included attending Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural Address at the Capitol and running errands for Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas, Rupp had perhaps his most memorable experience instructing new House staff assigned to the lobby door, one of whom was a young Texan, and future U.S. President, named Lyndon B. Johnson. Rupp recalled, “[I]t was the most busy place of them all and you had to really know every Congressman by sight, by name, by party, and his various idiosyncrasies—what committee he was on, and all that sort of thing.” With hundreds of accredited reporters in the press galleries seeking out Members on the floor, the job required a photographic memory. “I’d never use a pencil,” Rupp said, “I never wrote down a name or anything, of anyone; I just heard it once, and I seemed to remember it. And that’s the reason I was out there.”34 Later, in the twentieth century, as security tightened in the chamber, Pages no longer worked the entrances to the chamber. Instead, door duty became simply ceremonial: Pages attended the lobby door through which the Speaker processed to the rostrum at the beginning of each legislative day.
“Documentarian Pages,” though less numerous, were usually more senior Pages who were tasked with greater responsibilities and worked directly with staff in attending to legislative business on the House Floor. These individuals assisted with pending legislative documents by distributing copies of bills, hearings, and committee reports. Each morning during a legislative day, a pair of documentarian Pages also raised the American flag over the House side of the Capitol to signal that the legislative body was gathered in session. Documentarian Pages, in cooperation with Clerk staff and Parliamentarian staff, also operated the electronic bell and signal system that alerted House Members about pending votes and other floor activities.
Finally, the “cloakroom Pages” (often referred to as “telephone Pages”) worked in the party cloakrooms in the rear corners of the chamber. They tended to have photographic memories of names and faces, and often served as a source of information for Members and staff who would call the cloakrooms for an update on House proceedings, particularly in the days before gavel- to-gavel television coverage. They answered calls and delivered messages to Representatives on the floor or placed calls at their request.35 Pages sometimes assisted party Whips and other leaders by placing calls to Members and advising them that a vote was nearing and that their presence was required on the House Floor.36 The introduction of electronic pagers in the 1970s and, later, cell phones obviated the need for Page help in “whipping” votes.
24Frank G. Carpenter, “Congressional Pages,” reprinted from Youth’s Companion in 22 May 1886 edition of the San Francisco Bulletin.
25Thomas, The Print of My Remembrance: 44.
26Carpenter, “Congressional Pages.”
27William Tyler Page, “Pages in the House of Representatives,” Page Yearbook, 1942: n.p.
28See “Electronic Technology in the House of Representatives,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/Electronic-Technology/House-Technology/.
29Thomas, The Print of My Remembrance: 54.
30Amer, “Pages of the United States Congress”: 23.
31Donnald K. Anderson, Interview 1, 25 January 2006, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives: 11–12.
32Joe Bartlett, Interview 1, 7 April 2006, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives: 6.
33Bartlett, Interview 1: 25.
34Glenn Rupp, Interview 1, 27 April 2005, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives: 10; 15–16.
35See, for example, Anderson, Interview 1:16.
36Severn, Democracy’s Messengers: 80–86.