In 1819, the Senate ordered 48 new desks at a cost of $34 each from New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine, to replace those burned by the British during the War of 1812. When the Senate moved into the chamber it now occupies in 1859, they took with them the desks as well. All the original "Constantine" desks remain in use in the Senate Chamber today. As new states entered the Union, additional desks of similar design were built by other cabinetmakers and installed.
Over the years, modifications have been made to the desks. Beginning in the 1830s, and periodically over the next 40 years, three- to four-inch high mahogany writing boxes were added to each desk. Mahogany shelves were later installed under the desktops to provide additional room for books and papers. At the turn of the 20th century, the feet were enclosed with a metal grille and connected to a plenum chamber below the floor which provided ventilation. Inkwells and sanders atop the desks have also changed. Original inkwells were composed of clear cut glass, covered with square, flat tops that moved horizontally. In 1933, the remaining original inkwells were replaced by containers having hinged covers, since the earlier design was no longer manufactured.
Today, the history of each desk may be traced by reading the names carved inside the desk drawers. These inscriptions are a 20th-century tradition, and not all the names were personally inscribed by the senators. However, in recent decades, senators have adhered more closely to a tradition of personally inscribing their desks.
No general record of identifying the 19th-century occupants of individual Senate desks has been found, and only a few noteworthy desks have been tied to specific senators. Two of these are the Daniel Webster Desk, and the Jefferson Davis Desk.
Traditions associated with the Senate desks continue to evolve. A recent example is the so-called "Candy Desk." Senator George Murphy (R-CA) originated the practice of keeping a supply of candy in his desk for the enjoyment of fellow senators. This desk was subsequently passed on to other members for use, but the tradition of keeping candy in the desk that occupies that particular place in the back row of the chamber continues.
The custom of dividing the arrangement of Senate desks by party is almost as old as the parties themselves, Democrats traditionally sit on the presiding officer's right; Republicans on the left. But the division has not always been definitive as it is today.
In the Old Senate Chamber, an equal number of desks was placed on each side of the aisle, without regard to party size. When one party elected more than half the senators, some majority party member had to find space on the minority side. When the Senate moved to the modern chamber in 1859, it was large enough to permit a more flexible seating arrangement. In 1877 the practice began of moving desks back and forth across the center aisle to permit all majority members to sit together on the appropriate side. From time to time since then, one party has elected such an overwhelming majority that it has become necessary to again have majority members sit on the minority side.
Senators who are independent of either party traditionally have chosen for themselves whether they will sit on the Republicans' or Democrats' side of the center aisle. Once, during the 1950s, when Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon had left the Republican party but not yet joined the Democrats, he placed his chair temporarily in the middle of the center aisle in order to demonstrate his independence.
The seating of the majority and minority leaders at the front row desks on either side of the center aisle is a relatively recent Senate tradition, dating back only to 1927 for the Democrats and 1937 for the Republicans. In the 19th century, party leadership was not yet institutionalized. Certain senators were recognized as leaders for reasons of personal popularity and political skill, but not elected to an official post by their parties. Henry Clay always occupied a rear seat near the chamber entrance. From that position he was able to signal party members as they came in before a vote, while vigorously denying the role of party floor leader.