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Historical Artifacts: Gallery Passes to the U.S. Senate Chamber

[U.S. Senate Chamber with Isaac Bassett and Pages]

Display of Gallery Passes 1890 to Present

List of Gallery Passes to the U.S. Senate Chamber

The Senate has occupied its current Chamber in the United States Capitol since January 4, 1859. Passes to the 3rd floor galleries that surround the Chamber—where visitors can watch the Senate’s proceedings—began being issued regularly in 1890. Previously, tickets were distributed only for special events such as impeachments, funerals, or inaugurations.

The administration and design of the passes has changed infrequently over the years. The iconic design on the front of each card went through one major alteration in 1903, when an image of the Senate wing of the Capitol in a three-quarter round frame was replaced with an image of the Capitol surrounded by an American eagle, shield, flag, and sunburst. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving printed each pass until 1908 when responsibility was transferred to the Government Printing Office. In 1954 the standard white cards gave way to those printed in colorful hues. A patriotic-themed card was issued for the nation's bicentennial in 1976. Passes were printed every year (one for each congressional session) until 1981 when cards became valid for the entire two-year Congress. In 2006 the first ever gallery pass was printed with a removable adhesive sticker.

A code of conduct for visitors to the galleries is set by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and is enforced by the doorkeepers. In 1959 the Senate began printing these rules, which include a list of objects prohibited in the galleries, on the back of each pass. Forbidden items initially included cameras, packages, luggage, and hats. Eventually, electronic instruments, firearms, aerosol/non-aerosol sprays, pointed objects, and food were added to the list. Some activities are also forbidden, such as smoking, reading, taking notes, and applause. Children under the age of six are not allowed in the galleries.

Then as now, each gallery pass requires the "signature" of a senator or officer of the Senate. At one time, it was not uncommon for a senator to personally sign a gallery pass, but eventually the task became overwhelming and "signatures" were increasingly executed with the aid of a rubber stamp or a mechanical device such as an autopen.

Painted wood signs, affixed above the entrance to each Senate Chamber gallery, recall early seating assignments—Ladies Gallery, Mens Gallery, Diplomatic Gallery, Reserved Gallery, and Press Gallery. Visitors were admitted to the "Reserved Gallery" until 1966 when the gallery designation was changed to "Visitor’s Gallery." Today, doorkeepers regulate attendance by rotating visitors through the Visitor's Gallery, furnishing passes to foreign visitors for the Diplomatic Gallery, and supervising the Family Gallery for senators’ families and special guests.