Books about the Page Experience

The below article is reprinted with permission from the Winter 2012 edition of Unum, the Newsletter of the Office of the Secretary of the Senate

Senate Page-Turners

Tamara Elliot 

Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson once called being a page “a chance to see government without glamour.” Each year, a small group of 16-yearold students are selected from all around the country to come to Washington, D.C. as pages—and to see how laws are made right from the Senate floor. The Senate Library has a collection of books about pages that reflect their unique perspectives and experiences. Some of the books are written by former pages; others discuss the history of the program. Here are highlights from three different works.

Memoirs of a Senate Page (1909)

“Pennsylvania Avenue was just a dirt road,” remembers Christian F. Eckloff, author of Memoirs of a Senate Page, describing the view looking down from the Capitol dome. Eckloff worked as a Senate page from 1855 to 1859 and witnessed history unfold on the Senate floor during a tense time in America’s history, as the country struggled with questions of slavery and succession. Eckloff listened as Senators Charles Sumner and Stephen Douglas delivered now-famous addresses, and he eloquently recounts his impressions in this memoir.

Eckloff worked for the Senate when it met in what is now the Old Senate Chamber. “There was an alluring atmosphere about the place that has perforce vanished with past days,” he writes. “A
feature of the old chamber which lent the appearance of comfort and homeliness were the open fires.” Like today, pages were not solely messengers. They were required to prepare senators’ desks with materials they would need for the day’s work, such as copies of bills and writing implements. “Those were the kindly days of quill pens and snuff. . . . Steel pens were in use, but many senators clung to the quills and were very exacting in their wishes,” says Eckloff. Senators did not have secretaries at that time so after adjournment each day they would write their correspondence. The pages were required to stay until every senator had left the chamber and the pages then sealed the letters with a candlestick and sealing wax.

Eckloff recounts that it was critical that pages not disturb Senate proceedings in any way. “So utterly opposed was the Senate to the intrusion of outside influences that the clamorousness of a creaking shoe was profoundly prohibited, on which account all pages were required to were [sic] slippers while in the chamber. I hardly think the boys had noisy shoes, but we were on the march so continually, that to prevent the possibility of a tumult arising from these quarters, we had to wear the pumps.”

The early pages did not have an organized program that provided education or housing as they do today. Eckloff explains that the pages, with few exceptions, were the sons of widows. Offering a page position to a boy was a way to help poorer families who needed extra income. The pay was $2.40 a day, including Sundays—or about $75 a month. Enterprising pages earned extra money by collecting the autographs of senators and selling the albums to visitors. They also earned money for distributing copies of senators’ speeches to subscribers. “When an important speech was delivered, customarily one of the large printing offices would have it for publication. . . . When Douglas, Seward, Sumner, or some other magic name headed the list as author of the speech . . . it was easy to make as high as thirty dollars on one [subscription] list.”

Eckloff recalls one particularly extraordinary day when Senator William Bigler of Pennsylvania asked him to make an unusual delivery. This letter was not to go in the post but it was to be placed into the hands of President Buchanan. Excitedly, Eckloff rushed to do his duty, hopping in a horse-drawn omnibus. He recalled “the great weight of responsibility which rested upon me, seemed to make it harder for the horses to pull, and I sat there meditating upon the whole matter when suddenly at a point nearly opposite Willard’s [hotel], I observed the President walking on the pavement in front of the hotel. I was out of the omnibus in a hurry and approaching His Excellency with my hat in hand, said: ‘Mr. Buchanan, I have been directed by Senator Bigler to give you this letter in person.’ The President smiled, thanked me, and opened it. I stood there . . . scarcely daring to breathe in the august presence, until I saw his eyes turned on me and heard him say ‘No answer;’ and overcome with excitement took the next ‘bus back to the Capitol.”

Democracy’s Messengers:
The Capitol Pages (1975)

Written in 1975 by Bill Severn, Democracy’s Messengers: The Capitol Pages focuses less on the Senate as a stage where the drama of the nation plays out and more on the history of the page program itself. Boys were hired as messengers by Congress as early as the 1790s when it was still meeting in Philadelphia, and the practice continued when the Capitol moved to Washington in 1800. The origins of the Senate page program go back to 1829 when Daniel Webster appointed the first Senate page, 9-year-old Grafton Hanson. Two years later, the Senate added a second page—12-year-old Isaac Bassett.

Through the years Senate pages generally have had the same responsibilities, although rapidly changing technology has had an impact on the duties of today’s pages. Early pages were charged with stoking fires to keep the chamber warm; seeing to it that “each senator was supplied with a quill pen to his liking, and they had to keep the preferences straight;” working in the folding room preparing documents to be mailed; and riding horses to deliver the mail and, later, riding bikes to deliver telegrams. Pages have even raced through the halls searching for senators when a vote was being taken.

Today there are typically 30 Senate pages each semester. They are 16-year-old high school juniors who are appointed by their senators. They have school very early each morning and report for work before the Senate comes into session each day. Pages help prepare the Senate Chamber for business. They bring the gavel from the Sergeant at Arms’ office. They prepare senators’ desks. They distribute the Congressional Record and other documents to senators. They deliver messages and documents all over the Hill. As Severn explains, “Their duties are varied and even their routine chores smooth the daily function of the business of the . . . Senate.”

In this day and age it is surprising to realize that girls were not appointed pages until 1971. Senators Jacob Javits of New York, Charles Percy of Illinois, and Fred Harris of Oklahoma decided in February of 1970 that it was time young women were also allowed the opportunity to serve as Senate pages. Severn details the controversy: “It went on for more than a year, through delays, frustrations, closeddoor and public hearings, and finally into debate before the full Senate. . . .” Finally, on May 14, 1971, Paulette Desell and Ellen McConnell were sworn in as the first female Senate pages. A week later, a third female Senate page, Julie Price, joined them. The new pages were initially in the spotlight. When asked about her views on the struggle for equality, Paulette Desell replied: “I still don’t believe in bra-burning and violence. Those aren’t good tactics. But this has made me think about the issue.” Within a few years young women had been appointed as pages in both the House and Supreme Court as well.

A Page in History (2006)

For a more contemporary glimpse into what it has been like to be a Senate page, check out A Page in History by Joe Kippley. Kippley penned this personal narrative after his unique experiences on Capitol Hill during what was an extraordinary fall in 2001.

Kippley, a 16-year-old high school junior from South Dakota with a deep interest in politics, was determined to become a Senate page after a family vacation to Washington, D.C., that included a tour of the Senate Chamber. The idea of walking among lawmakers caught his imagination and when he was old enough, Kippley applied to the page program and was appointed by Senator Tom Daschle. He arrived in Washington on September 2, 2001, not knowing exactly what to expect of his time on the Hill.

Kippley begins his story nine days later, with a vivid description of the urgency felt during the evacuation of the Capitol on September 11, 2001. He remembers the surreal feeling of rushing out of the cloakroom and down the marble steps to the first floor of the Capitol with other pages, staff, and senators. After a phone call home to reassure his mother, he describes the emotional scene as his fellow pages gathered at Webster Hall to watch the sad news of the terrorist attacks unfold on television. Most of the pages, including Kippley, returned to work when the Senate reconvened on September 12. He felt proud to be contributing to the Senate as it continued to do its work, even in the face of such tragic events.

From its unusual beginnings, the fall of 2001 continued to prove eventful. Kippley describes the mood after a letter containing anthrax was delivered and opened in Senator Daschle’s office on October 15, 2001. Yet, despite all that occurred, Kippley and the other pages continued to do the work that needed to be done for the Senate.

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