Life in the Senate, 1830-1831

"Senate Chamber"
Deroy, after Augustus Theodore Frederick Adam Kollner


Personal Recollection and Reminiscences in and around the Senate Chamber, 1830-1831

Mr. Grimes, which he was assistant doorkeeper, acted as postmaster and superintendent of the folding room, had charge of all the mail and documents for the use of the Senate. There was only one horse and wagon employed to carry out the mails and documents for the senators. The name of the man who done that work was Robert Tweedy, and his title was one of the messengers to the Senate.

There was only one reporter, he employed an assistant. The name of the reporter was William Sutton. There was two desks made to fit in between the marble pillars on each side of the vice president’s chair. Several years after, Mr. Sutton increased his force of reporters and employed a youth, quite a boy, his name was D.F. Murphy. In after years he employed two of his brothers. Mr. D.F. Murphy is now considered one of the best shorthand reporters in the United States. The Senate increased to be quite a large body and it was found necessary to have two more desks made for the reporters, and one was put on the North side and one on the South side of the Senate. It is a fact not known that these desks were immediately back of Mr. Clay and Mr. Benton. Mr. Clay sat on the back row of seats on the South side, and Mr. Benton on the North. Mr. Clay occupied the 3rd seat on his side and Mr. Benton the 4th from the corner, so that the reporter seats were immediately back of them. In 1830-31 there was no gas, and at the night session the Senate Chamber was lit up with oil and candles. On the walls were large lamps put, and on each senator’s desk was candles put in large candlesticks and the pages had to keep a pair of snuffers in our hands to snuff the candles. When the Senate sat all night the candles had to be trimmed several times. In those days they burned Hickory wood and we had to go outside of the main entrance to get the wood and bring it in and put it on the fire (in those days they had no furnaces). Back of the vice president’s seat there was four fireplaces. On each side of the main door of the Senate there was two stoves (I burnt my hands often). During the session we had to keep them full of wood and wait on the senators besides. Those six fires heated the Senate. Just here I must say that the air in the Senate was much purer than it is now in the day of ventilation with all of your scientific arrangements. Whenever it became too warm all we had to do was raise the windows back of the vice president’s chair, and we got the pure fresh air.

The sergeant at arms’ room [ad]joined the Senate, also the folding room, and in the folding room was the post office. Much more convenient than they now are, but they were much smaller. Let me explain. The sergeant at arms’ room was only 8 feet square, the post office and folding room was all in one. Let me give a description of the post office. There was a little clubhouse made of rods about nine feet long and four feet wide where all the mails was re-sorted for the Senate. That was called the post office of the Senate of the United States. The folding room was about 20 feet long and 15 wide, where all of the folding for the Senate was done. In those days we all had to take a hand in folding. Many a night have I stayed till eleven and twelve o’clock folding speeches for Senators Clay, Benton, Calhoun, and Webster and other senators. Remember we had in those days no paste, we had to use wafers. I have went home often and told my mother that my tongue was blistered with using red wafers. She would say, “I wish something else could be found in their place, they will poison you.” I have folded as many as six thousand before I went home at night.

The pay of the pages was then one dollar and fifty cents per day and the messengers two dollars and fifty cents per day. We thought it was pretty good pay. What a wonderful change, now we have gas and the building is heated by hot air and steam and the water is brought to the Capitol from the Potomac River and defused all over the building. [3A17-3A24]

Editor's Note:

The image above depicts the Old Senate Chamber, as described by Bassett. The print shows the Chamber from the west end, with the senators’ desks forming a U-shape around the platform at the east end. On the platform sits the vice president of the United States with the secretary of the Senate and other floor staff in front. Behind the vice president’s dais is a loggia area, with four fireplaces and three windows, which was used by senators to converse with one another during a session. The main entrance to the Chamber was at the west end.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Assistant Doorkeeper - The positions of doorkeeper and assistant doorkeeper were first established in 1789. These officers tended the Senate Chamber door and enforced order in the galleries. The officer now responsible for these duties is the sergeant at arms of the Senate, whose full title is “sergeant at arms and doorkeeper.”  The sergeant at arms is the chief law enforcement, protocol, and executive officer of the Senate.
  • Folding room - The folding room was a multi-purpose office that prepared documents and bills for distribution and mailing.
  • Messenger - Messengers delivered documents, brought messages, and informed members of a roll call vote.
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • Thomas Hart Benton (Democratic Republican, Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1821-1851.
  • Page - For more than 175 years, messengers known as pages have served the U.S. Senate. Page duties consist primarily of delivering correspondence and legislative material within the Capitol complex. Other duties include preparing the Senate Chamber for Senate sessions, and carrying bills and amendments to the presiding officer’s desk.
  • Vice President - Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate. In the Senate Chamber, the vice president sits on the platform at the front of the Senate. He is allowed to vote only in the case of a tie. The president pro tempore, or others designated by that officer, presides in the absence of the vice president.
  • Sergeant at Arms - This position was originally that of doorkeeper, and was established in 1789. The doorkeeper tended the Senate Chamber door and enforced order in the galleries. Over the years, the title and duties grew; the title is now "sergeant at arms and doorkeeper." The sergeant at arms serves the Senate as its chief law enforcement officer, protocol officer, and executive officer.
  • John Caldwell Calhoun (Democratic Republican, Nullifier, Democrat - SC) U.S. senator 1832-1843 and 1845-1850.
  • Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.