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Curator Catalogs U.S. House's Human Side

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In 1857, House members would have done all their work from this wood, goatskin and brass chair (designed by Thomas U. Walter) in the House chamber. They didn't get their own offices until 1908.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
In 1857, House members would have done all their work from this wood, goatskin and brass chair (designed by Thomas U. Walter) in the House chamber. They didn't get their own offices until 1908.

Farar Elliott, curator of the House of Representatives, is in charge of various sundry items that are the property of the House. This includes everything from a two-foot tall baseball trophy, double-tiered with eagles flanking it, to a wooden gavel, to a menu from 1933 featuring something called "pin-money pickles."

Elliott is the first curator the House has ever had. She started in 2002.

"I think one of the things that's the most exciting about what I do is to put a human face on the House of Representatives," she says.

Most often, she does this by displaying the House's art and artifacts in the Capitol Building. That double-tiered baseball trophy -- from the annual Congressional Baseball Game -- is actually in a basement storage room. But looking at this object, it's hard not to see that "human face" Elliott talks about.

"Especially with kids, when they see some of the artifacts we have, they imagine, 'Oh! This is a bunch of people who are like me! They play sports, they read books, they get nervous before they give speeches,'" she says.

They also have to eat. That 1933 menu, with its 'pin-money pickles' is from the House of Representatives restaurant. And while items like this are fun and curious keepsakes, they also get used for research.

Recently, a member of the public called, asking about the fate of a certain sandwich. "If you look back into history, this one little line that says "Club Sandwich: 50 cents," you will find that just three years before there was a huge fight in the House of Representatives about the club sandwich," she says.

As the story goes, after a deficit was discovered at the restaurant, House members started asking if the eatery wasn't maybe over-charging for the club.

As Elliott tells it, a congressman who took issue with someone saying his committee didn't know how to run the restaurant went down on the House floor with two club sandwiches in his hand: one from the House restaurant, and one from a local chain.

"And he said, 'Look at the size of this piece of chicken and compare it to this piece of chicken! In our restaurant, and with our larger piece of chicken, a large piece of toast, more mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce, we get only five cents more,'" says Elliott.

The debate raged on, and 80-odd years later, "because we were fortunate enough to have something like this," says Elliott, "we can find that in fact, the club sandwich survived its difficult times on the floor of the House!"

But some artifacts in the House collection look a lot like things you'd see today. Like that maple gavel, used by the Republican Speaker of the House from 1925 to 1931. All these objects remind people that even if the way Congress does things has changed, much about the institution remains true to tradition.

"The essence of what Congress does has not changed. The older we get in terms of our artifacts, the closer we get to the essence of what Congress is about," Elliott says.

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