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Senate Chamber Desks

Overview     |     Seating Plans     |     Desk Occupants     |    The Desks    |     Traditions     |     Timeline

The Desks: Anatomy and Evolution

Until the first Senate office building opened in 1909, most senators used their Chamber desks as their primary working space in the Capitol. As a result, the desks were modified several times during the 19th century to make them more useful as personal work spaces. Shelves and tops, or “writing boxes,” provided much-needed storage space for books and papers. A further modification in the 20th century added a speech reinforcement system to each desk, allowing members to more clearly hear one another.

Image: Anatomy of Early Senate Chamber DeskImage: Anatomy of a Current Senate Chamber Desk

Did You Know?

  • The Original 48 Desks
  • S. Res. 128 Authorizing Payment to Thomas Constantine for Senate Furniture
    Senate Bill 128
    March 26, 1828
    U.S. Senate Historical Office
    Image: Senate Desk Thomas Constantine Label
    Paper label from T. Constantine & Co.
    ca. 1819
    National Museum of American History,
    Smithsonian Institution

    On June 23, 1818, Speaker of the House Henry Clay received 13 bids on a project to completely refurnish the House Chamber, following the Capitol’s near destruction by invading British forces. Speaker Clay sought carpets, wall hangings, lamps, 187 chairs, and 51 tables. In ordering group tables, Clay continued the House practice of seating members together, presumably to symbolize their equality and interdependence. Aiming for utility and durability, rather than elegance and style, the frugal Clay selected the lowest bid. It came from a 27-year-old New York City cabinetmaker named Thomas Constantine.

    The more deliberative Senate took much longer to arrange for its new postwar furnishings. With only six weeks remaining before the December 1819 convening of the 16th Congress, the Senate’s presiding officer, Vice President Daniel Tompkins, turned to the cabinetmaker the House had selected—Thomas Constantine. The vice president ordered 48 mahogany armchairs and desks as well as other furnishings for the Chamber. Constantine was paid $34 for each Senate desk, and $46 for each chair.

    Constantine based his design of the Senate armchairs—today’s chairs are copies—on a sketch from an 1807 book on English furniture. His chairs reflected the influence of the then-popular French Empire and English Regency designs. Unlike the more commonplace House chairs, which he upholstered in black horsehair fabric, Constantine covered the Senate pieces in red morocco leather.

  • Names Written Inside the Desk Drawers
  • Image: Senate chamber Desk 43 (XLIII) Drawer
    Senate Chamber desk drawer.
    U.S. Senate Collection

    The easiest method of tracing the occupants of each desk is to read the senators’ names written inside the desk drawers. These inscriptions are a 20th-century tradition; the earliest recorded names date back only to the first decade of the 1900s. Not all the names in the drawers were personally inscribed by senators. Many reveal an identical hand, suggesting either that older drawer bottoms were replaced and the names recopied, or that staff members, rather than senators, took responsibility for chronicling certain holders. In recent decades, many senators have personally inscribed their names in the drawers.

    Prior to the tradition of inscribing names in the Senate Chamber desk drawers, it is difficult to verify the desks’ 19th-century assignees. For many years Senate doorkeepers closely guarded such privileged information. Isaac Bassett, who worked in the Senate Chamber from 1831 to 1895, feared that souvenir hunters might damage the historic furniture if it was widely known which pieces were used by such famous senators as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, or John C. Calhoun.

  • Hollywood Movie Prop Desk

  • U.S. Senate Collection

    The climactic scene of the classic 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington features Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, delivering an impassioned filibuster in the Senate Chamber. Because director Frank Capra was not permitted to film in the Chamber, he ordered the construction of a replica of the Chamber, complete with an entire set of reproduction Chamber desks fabricated by the Angelus Furniture Manufacturing Co. of Los Angeles. Director Otto Preminger brought Capra’s original set out of storage for use in his own 1962 film about the Senate, Advise and Consent, based on Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.

    Although the Angelus Company duplicated many of the details of the historic Senate Chamber desks, a false writing top, rudimentary cast-iron ventilation grilles, and the absence of inkwells and pounce bottles are vital clues that these desks were created as movie props.

  • Senate Chamber Chairs

  • U.S. Senate Collection
    Image: Current Senate Chamber Chair"
    Current Senate Chamber Chair.
    U.S. Senate Collection

    When British troops set fire to the Capitol in 1814, the Senate Chamber was extensively damaged and its furnishings destroyed. As part of the reconstruction effort, the Senate commissioned New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine to build 48 desks and chairs for its members. Completed in time for the reopening of the Chamber in 1819, Constantine’s chairs bore a close resemblance to a neoclassical design published by Thomas Hope in his Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London, 1807).

    As states were added to the Union, additional desks and chairs were produced by a variety of cabinetmakers to meet the demands of increased Senate membership. While all of the desks are still in use, sometime in the late 19th century the chairs were gradually removed. Only three of the original 1819 chairs have been located to date–two in private collections and one in the Senate Collection. A fourth chair, property of "Beauvoir," the historic post–Civil War home and library of Jefferson Davis in Biloxi, Mississippi, was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Only a brass caster was found among the debris.

    Today’s Senate Chamber chairs are made in the Senate Sergeant at Arms Cabinet Shop and are of a modified Thomas Constantine design. They are somewhat smaller and less intricately carved than those built in 1819. Senators are permitted to purchase their chairs upon leaving office, and replacement chairs are made after each election.