Heard on the Hill

Flashback Friday: A Page Right Out of History

The Senate page program was started as a way to keep local kids out of trouble

A Senate page with Sen. Charles Sumner from Edmund Alton’s 1886 book “Among the Law-Makers.”

Here’s a congressional throwback — a phrase or part of Capitol Hill culture that a younger generation of Hill staffers may not know or appreciate.

Who Senate pages used to be

Senate pages are high school juniors, at least 16 years old, who help deliver correspondence, transport bills and prepare the chamber, all while attending the U.S. Senate Page School.

When the program was first established in 1829, it was for a very different reason: It was a seen as a way to keep kids on the margins out of trouble.

Back then, Senate pages — boys only — were about 12 years old, and many were orphans or children of widowed D.C. mothers. The positions gave them something to do and an income for their family, if they had one.

The first page was Grafton Hanson, appointed by Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In the 1900s, the Senate decided pages should be older and opened up the program to juniors from all over the country. It also established the school and a dormitory for them.

An illustration of pages playing marbles behind a lawmaker’s desk from Edmund Alton's 1886 novel “Among the Law-Makers."
An illustration of pages playing marbles behind a lawmaker’s desk from Edmund Alton’s 1886 novel “Among the Law-Makers."

Girls were not allowed into the program until 1971, when Sens. Charles Percy of Illinois, Jacob Javits of New York and Fred Harris of Oklahoma broke the all-male tradition.

The first female pages were Ellen Blakeman, Paulette Desell and Julie Price. The sergeant-at-arms refused to swear them in until the chamber officially approved a resolution that May.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House page program was suspended in 2011 after almost 180 years. Then-House Speaker John A. Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi cited high costs and said technology could more efficiently perform most of the pages’ tasks.

Watch: Mispronounced Names, Mother’s Day and a Kid in Committee — Congressional Hits and Misses

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