It's big. It's heavy. It's "invincible." And it's back.
A 19th-century safe that secured the Senate payrolls and other valuables 128 years ago has returned to Senate ownership, this time as the heaviest piece in the Senate's curatorial collection. Hall's safe, a masterpiece of American industrial arts, had been a fixture in the secretary's financial clerk's office until it was auctioned to a private owner in the 1970s. Recently donated to the Senate, it had been stored in the owner's garage for the past 30 years.
At 70" x 48", the safe is nearly the size of a clothes closet and weighs in at four tons. An exciting discovery was made when the Senate safe was recently moved for conservation and analysis. The owner recalled that when he pushed the safe into his garage corner in the 1970s, painted maidens adorned its back. As art handlers pushed the safe from its resting spot, the maidens came to light. They turned out to be the three classical figures from the second Senate seal, personifications of Justice, Liberty, and Legislation, with an eagle overhead.
The secretary of the Senate's 1880 purchase of the safe symbolizes a turning point in the institution. With the post-Civil War return of senators representing southern states, the Senate's membership soared by more than 50 percent--from 47 in 1861 to 76 in 1876. One year before the purchase of the safe, party control in the Senate had shifted for the first time in a generation, bringing in a new secretary and a significant turnover among legislative staff. As the nation's attention shifted from wartime destruction to harnessing the resources of a vast continent, the Senate expanded its committee staffing and modernized its administrative procedures. Like thousands of developing businesses throughout the nation, the Senate acquired its own modern safe to bring order and security to its financial operations. Senate employees were paid in cash by the financial clerk, necessitating storage of large sums of money, a practice that lasted into the 1970s.
The era belonging to the Senate safe celebrated America's cultural and industrial progress. The Hall's Safe and Lock Company, which advertised its "advanced" and "patented" technology, displayed in Philadelphia's influential Centennial Exhibition in 1876 (the first major World's Fair held in the United States). The exhibition, which presented America as a new industrial world power, was well attended by members of Congress and an estimated 9 million other visitors. Nearly 130 years later, the Senate safe still stands as a testament to the quality, workmanship, and ingenuity of American industry.