Every desk bears a nameplate with script lettering to identify the senator to whom the desk is currently assigned. While early nameplates were made of wood, the nameplates are now made of brass.
Each of the 100 desks in the Senate Chamber holds a detachable wooden tray made for writing tools. The recessed trays contain three distinct compartments, and are located in the upper-right corner in every desk except one, where the tray is positioned in the upper-left corner. The reason for this variation is unknown.
The inkwell, located in the far-right section of the tray, consists of a metal box with a hinged lid and a cobalt-blue glass liner for ink. The sander, located in the far-left section of the tray, is made of clear glass with a perforated twist-on metal top for shaking blotting sand. Between the two compartments is a concave basin to accommodate pens and pencils.
When ink quills/pens were commonplace, blotting sand (also known as pounce) was gently sprinkled on freshly written documents to absorb and quickly dry the ink. By the early 20th century, sanders and inkwells were made obsolete by the introduction of blotting paper and fountain pens. However, in keeping with tradition, the Senate has retained its inkwells, sanders, and trays, which date to the 1930s. An integral part of the desks, the wooden trays and their containers play an important role in telling the history of the Senate Chamber desks.
The desk drawer provides a location to store books, papers, and other materials.
In 1820, mahogany bookshelves were added to the original 48 desks to provide additional space for books and papers. Since then, each desk has been constructed with a bookshelf.
Beginning in the early 19th century, desks were fitted with mahogany writing boxes with hinged lids to provide more space for books and papers. The boxes increased the overall height of the desks. Today only one desk—the Daniel Webster Desk—lacks a writing box.
At least seven distinct numbering systems, using both Roman and Arabic numerals, have been employed over the years to identify the desks, track their locations, and facilitate their arrangement in the Chamber. These numbers are still visible on the desks. The first known numbering system was adopted in 1871, when E. O’Connor was paid $4.00 to number all desks and chairs to correspond to a floor plan of the Senate Chamber. Additional numbering systems were introduced in 1872, 1875, 1890, ca. 1895, 1898, 1911, and 1912. The current numbering system, instituted in 1957, consists of Roman numerals stamped on the right-hand corner of the principal wooden crosspiece beneath each desk. The Senate Chamber desks are not arranged on the Senate floor in numerical order.
For many years, the poor acoustics of the Senate Chamber were a constant topic of concern. When the Chamber underwent extensive remodeling in the late 1940s, workers added conduits beneath the floor to permit the future installation of a "public address" and media broadcasting system. In 1969 the Senate authorized such a system, and in 1971 each Chamber desk was fitted with a small microphone on the left side and an amplification box on the bookshelf.
Amplification boxes were also placed strategically throughout the public galleries. Except for the substitution of digital for analog technology in 1994–1995, the original system remains in place today.
The microphones are activated only when removed from their holders, broadcasting a senator's words to the low-volume speakers in the amplification boxes. These boxes also amplify any words spoken from the clerks' and presiding officer's desks on the dais when microphones there are activated.
In 1896 the desk feet were enclosed with metal grilles that connected to an airway below the floor, in an effort to improve ventilation in the Chamber.
The grilles remain on the desks today, although the 1896 ventilation system is no longer in use. (Air conditioning was introduced in the Senate Chamber in 1929.)
Did You Know?
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.
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.
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.
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.