House pages in the 1980s—girls began serving in the early '70s—pose on the Capitol steps with Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. Photograph courtesy of the Capitol Page Alumni Association.
In 1886, Scribner's published Among the Law-makers, a memoir by a former Senate page about the post-Civil War years he spent on Capitol Hill. The memoir recounted Edmund Alton's experiences as a witness to history, rubbing shoulders with members of Congress, seeing them at their best and worst.
Alton also described such page adventures as getting the keys to the door leading to the Capitol dome and sneaking in there by candlelight for a picnic after the Senate adjourned: "We began the ascent of the long and intricate stairs in a joyous procession. . . . Hundreds of feet below lay the city of Washington, with its myriad of twinkling lights."
One time, they crawled into the pneumatic tube then used for transmitting documents to the Government Printing Office: "We derived immense satisfaction from this exploit. This satisfaction was increased when the engineer informed us, as we emerged begrimed with dust, that in another instant we would have been annihilated by the ball that, filled with documents, was shot with lightning velocity from the farther end."
Alton served as a page—one of the youths who, from the earliest days of Congress, have assisted members with errands and various other tasks—from age 13 to 17 during Ulysses S. Grant's presidency. In places, his memoir reads almost like a Harry Potter volume, but instead of Harry and his friends roaming the corridors of Hogwarts after hours, the pages were exploring one of the nation's largest and most complex buildings, the US Capitol, with dozens of secret passages:
"In the large room of pillars immediately above the crypt, there was a trap-door. Once, opening this, we descended an old stone staircase, and . . . soon found ourselves in a circular room, damp and cold, and nearly filled with broken statuary of every description—statesmen, griffins, lions, and other images." The boys used the secret room as a "retreat in which to conduct our midnight revels."
Most of the escapades were innocent—using boxes from the folding room to sled on the Capitol's west lawn on snowy days. But Alton also writes of getting into the office of the sergeant-at-arms and taking Ku Klux Klan robes stored there for a joint congressional investigation into the organization: "These costumes we pages would delightedly don in our night-session pilgrimages, and wander, a silent but awful band, through the corridors and rooms of the Capitol, to the consternation of all visitors. If you have ever seen one of these weird, fantastic outfits, you can imagine the hideous spectacle we presented."
Alton noted that those on the Senate side often dismissed the other chamber as inferior, referring to the House of Representatives as the Cave of the Winds because it often had so many members talking at the same time that it was almost always noisy.
Almost a hundred years after Alton, another youth recorded his reflections on being a Senate page with equal candor. "Senator V is a thoroughly asinine individual," Frank Madison wrote in his diary, published as A View From the Floor in 1967, nine years after he served as a page. Madison, from Kentucky, was 16 when he began, and he served from 1956 to 1958, when Lyndon Johnson was Senate majority leader and John F. Kennedy was a freshman senator making a name for himself.
Proving the adage that no man is a hero to his own valet, Madison wrote scathingly of many lawmakers: "Senator D is one of those people who think they are of tremendous importance to humanity and that every pungent syllable that falls from their lips is of urgent and critical importance to the salvation of mankind. On both counts he is in error."
Madison referred to one of the Senate's more rotund members as "Tummy" and wrote that "[Hubert] Humphrey has been doing a good job on the whole, considering that he is laboring under the handicap of an unpleasant voice. He is always sticking out his pointed chin, which juts from an otherwise pudgy face." And this: "That great champion of nothing, Senator O, has been consistently maintaining his high and unblemished record of inadequacy."
Madison summed up his assessment of the world's greatest deliberative body: "I measured the Senate by its capacity to combine extremes and incongruities, quaintness and grandeur, genius and stupidity."
No matter the century, congressional pages have enjoyed their proximity to members of Congress, watching momentous national debates and fooling around in their off-hours. But over the years, page antics—including some sex scandals—have become more public and the program has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism.
Last summer, without warning, House leaders announced they were ending that body's page program, citing cost and new technology that made the pages obsolete. When the House reconvened after Labor Day, its pages were gone. Senate pages remain on the job. In recent years, there have been about 30 Senate pages at any time, compared with about 70 in the House.
Next: In 1842 there were eight pages, each paid $2 a day.