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Paging Through History
Comments () | Published January 11, 2012
Senate pages in the early 1920s cheer Vice President Calvin Coolidge after he entertained them with lunch at the Capitol. Photograph courtesy of Corbis.

As early as the First Continental Congress in 1774, young boys served as messengers and ran errands for the representatives. The term "page" wasn't officially used until 1827, when the House of Representatives employed three young boys.

Often the boys, who were paid for their services, were chosen because they were destitute or orphaned or because their mothers were widows. In 1842 there were eight pages, each paid $2 a day. As the years went by, the compensation increased along with the prestige of the position. Pages currently earn more than $400 a week, from which expenses for room and board are deducted.

The first Senate page, appointed by Daniel Webster in 1829, was nine-year-old Grafton Dulany Hanson, a descendant of John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress, and grandson of the Senate sergeant-at-arms; he was a page for ten years. Two years later, Webster pushed the Senate to appoint 12-year-old Isaac Bassett, whose father was a stonemason who worked on the reconstruction of the Capitol after it was burned by British troops in 1814.

Isaac Bassett became a Senate fixture, remaining more than 60 years, most of that time as assistant doorkeeper, a position in which he supervised the Senate staff and pages. He left a trove of handwritten remembrances of Senate leaders and events—from the speeches of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun to an assassination attempt on President Andrew Jackson in the Capitol rotunda and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. Bassett helped carry Sumner out of the chamber after the attack.

The original page duties—delivering correspondence and carrying documents, messages, and letters for members of Congress—weren't so different from those of the present day. One of their important responsibilities after a presidential election is to carry the wooden boxes containing each state's electoral ballots from the Senate to the House, where the votes are tallied.

Pages—who for a long time were only boys but since the early 1970s have included girls—raise and lower the flags that fly above the House and Senate to signal whether the chambers are in session. Senate pages place copies of the Congressional Record, executive and legislative calendars, and pending legislation on every senator's desk in the chamber before the start of each day. When a senator speaks, pages bring water and a lectern if needed.

Some responsibilities have changed. One job in the 19th century was filling the Senate snuffboxes, which remain on the Senate floor today, although they're empty now. Henry Clay summoned pages to bring him a snuff box as often as 20 times a day.

Pages also refilled ink bottles and made sure quill pens were sharpened and blotting-salt shakers filled. Before the introduction of gas lamps and then electricity, the Capitol was lit by oil lamps on the walls and by candles on members' desks. In long evening sessions, pages had to trim the candles and stoke the fireplaces and stoves with hickory wood. When the windows were open during warm evening sessions, bats would fly into the chamber and pages had to chase them out.

Before telephones, "riding pages" delivered letters from Congress to the President and to executive offices on ponies. They also rode high-seat bicycles to deliver telegrams. During late-night sessions, pages had to rouse members sleeping in the cloakroom when a vote was called—and even go to hotels and rooming houses to collect them when a vote was close.

An unwritten rule in the 19th century
held that pages couldn't be taller than the shortest senator.   

Congressional pages were immortalized in the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when Jimmy Stewart's character, the newly appointed senator Jefferson Smith, is shown to his seat by one. Stewart tells the boy he doesn't plan to make any speeches: "I'm just going to sit around and listen." In response, the page says, "That's the way to get reelected." More recently, a Senate page was a main character in the 2004 political thriller The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer.

Pages still often show new members of Congress where things are and how they work—such as what the bells and voting lights on congressional clocks mean. Over the years, they've also had to remember personal preferences, such as who likes mineral water, fruit-flavored chewing gum, or licorice and which senator wants a piece of apple pie with cheese at 2 every afternoon.

Even now, Senate pages are asked to bring a glass of water to any senator who rises to speak, and they must know who likes still water and who wants sparkling, who prefers ice and who wants lemon added—though today's pages probably would never try a 19th-century prank that Alton wrote about: The boys occasionally substituted salt for sugar in a glass of lemonade a senator requested.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the teenagers often played practical jokes on one another, such as sending new pages in search of a "bill stretcher." They sometimes played marbles behind the Vice President's chair in the Senate.

In the 19th century, many pages—and senators—lived in rooming houses without bathing facilities. Pages often were directed down to the Senate bathtubs in the Capitol basement to wash themselves and get their hair cut. There were 16 large tubs made of Italian marble; the baths were in operation from 1860 through the 1890s, when most homes and rooming houses got indoor plumbing and the tubs were taken out of use.

Congressional pages have long had a dress code. Until 1947, they wore dark-blue knickers, dark ribbed stockings, a dark-blue jacket, and a white shirt. Now they wear dark-blue jackets, white shirts, and ties; girls can wear pants or skirts.

An unwritten rule in the 19th century held that pages couldn't be taller than the shortest senator. In the Supreme Court, which also had pages, they couldn't be taller than the justices' chairs so they wouldn't be observed by court spectators.

Page programs have evolved to reflect societal changes. For the first hundred years or so, no schooling was provided for pages. In 1925, a congressional page school was established in the basement of the Capitol. About 25 years later, a more comfortable school was created on the third floor of the Library of Congress, and improvements have been made to the program, with social studies, science, math, and English now required. Pages get up at dawn to be in school during the early morning hours before Congress convenes.

Until late in the 20th century, pages had to find their own accommodations in rooming houses and apartments. But in 1983, two members of the House—Illinois Republican Daniel Crane and Massachusetts Democrat Gerry Studds—admitted having had sex with pages. Both were censured. Crane lost his next election, but Studds was reelected to six more terms before he retired from Congress.

Next: "It was one of the highlights of my life."


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Posted at 12:45 PM/ET, 01/11/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles