When the British set fire to the U.S. Capitol on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, the Senate Chamber (now the Old Senate Chamber) was severely damaged and the original furnishings destroyed. The rebuilt Chamber was completed in 1819, and the Senate installed the 48 new desks it had procured, at a cost of $34 each, from New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine. By providing desks for each of the 48 senators, Constantine affirmed the Senate’s custom of having its members sit at individual desks.
As new states entered the Union, additional desks of similar design were built by other cabinetmakers and installed. In 1859, when the Senate moved into the Chamber it now occupies, the desks were moved as well. All the original Constantine desks remain in use in the Senate Chamber today. Until 1877, all desks were made by private cabinetmakers under contract to the Senate. Since then, all desks (a total of 25) have been built by the Senate Sergeant at Arms Cabinet Shop. The last six desks were made circa 1959: four due to the admittance of Alaska and Hawaii into the Union, and two additional desks to be used as replacements.
There are noticeable differences in shape and dimension among the 100 desks. These result from the original semicircular arrangement of the desks in the Old Senate Chamber. A desk’s shape reflected its position in the room: aisle desks were narrow and angled, while center desks were wider and squarer. Today, senators may choose both the desk at which they sit and the placement of their desk within the Chamber. Desk occupants can change every two years with a new Congress and are based on seniority.
Many traditions pertaining to the Senate desks have evolved over the years, and each new class of senators that occupies them contributes to their heritage. Through careful documentation and diligent preservation, this rich historical legacy will be maintained for future generations. On this website, explore the history, stories, traditions, and occupants of the Senate Chamber desks.