Inauguration future may be a little more than two weeks in the offing, but the ghosts of inaugurals’ past are alive and well in the Capitol’s attic.
“People think we just collect paintings and sculpture and furniture,” said the Senate’s associate curator, Melinda Smith, “because those are the obvious things that people see everyday.”
But when it comes to telling the story of the Senate, few items pertaining to the Congressional aspects of the inauguration — from the seating plan of Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 inauguration to an empty wine bottle used at President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural luncheon — lie outside of the chamber’s interest.
Although the Senate Curator’s Office has been collecting inaugural materials since its inception in the late 1960s, not until 1993 did it begin actively and systematically seeking Congressional-related inaugural ephemera, such as tickets and programs, for safe keeping in the Senate art and historical collection, Smith said.
Four years ago, with the inauguration of the second President Bush, the office stepped up its efforts, creating a written plan in an effort to ensure the continuity of the collection.
Still, Smith said that the Senate’s holdings suffered from less than consistent collecting efforts prior to the early 1990s.
“One big gap for us [in recent times] is 1981,” Smith said, noting that the collection does not have a single item from Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. “Another major hole is the period from 1897 to 1925. … Where possible we collect information about the inaugural and copies of objects. If we don’t have the object, we may have information about the object.”
Senate Historian Richard Baker said it is not surprising that in the past the world’s most exclusive club has been less than vigilant when it comes to collecting inaugural memorabilia.
“Everything is event-focused: ‘We’ve got to get to the 20th of January then we can all go home happy,’” he said. “It’s a very dangerous type of situation in terms of integrity of the record.”
All in all, the Senate’s collection of inaugural ephemera spans just 19 inaugurations beginning in 1897, with a receipt book for tickets of admission to William McKinley’s swearing-in. More modern-day artifacts include everything from a place setting and menu from Bush’s 2001 inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall — attendees dined on lobster pie, grenadin of beef supreme, toffee pudding and vanilla bean ice cream — to swatches of carpet from both the Bush and Clinton inaugural podiums.
In 2001, “I was out in the pouring rain in my suit cutting up the carpet to get the sample” from the podium, laughed Smith, who heads up the Senate’s inauguration collecting efforts. (In addition to preserving inaugural artifacts, Senate curatorial staff also help out in two inauguration holding rooms — the Old Supreme Court Chamber and the Old Senate Chamber — as well as with the painting selected for display during the inaugural luncheon.)
Particularly rare among the Senate’s holdings, Smith said, are the gifts given to attendees of Bush’s first and Clinton’s second inaugural luncheons — respectively a blue ceramic plate emblazoned with an image of an 1800s-era Capitol and a brass magnifying glass.
“To my knowledge, us and the individual recipients are the only ones to have copies of the luncheon gift,” she said.
The Senate’s 1,900-item inaugural collection also includes more than a dozen 19th-century historical engravings — from Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper — beginning with the 1853 swearing-in of Franklin Pierce. All of these engravings are available online. The curator’s office is in the process of digitizing a sampling of its inaugural items to be displayed on the Senate Web site early this year.
Much of the collection’s earlier material is in the form of donated gifts from private individuals, the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, and other Congressional offices.
On occasion, material has come into the collection through rather serendipitous means. For instance, tucked within the pages of the papers of an Eisenhower-era Secretary of the Senate, the late Mark Trice, were programs for the 1933, 1969 and 1973 inaugurations, said Baker, noting that they had been discovered only after the papers were donated to the Senate Historical Office earlier in 2004.
While other institutions such as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress also collect inaugural artifacts, the curator’s office is unique in its effort to amass a comprehensive collection of Capitol-centric inaugural items, namely those linked to the swearing-in and the luncheon. The Smithsonian, for example, collects citywide inaugural memorabilia and is “not as detailed in everything they get from the Capitol as we are,” said Senate Curator Diane Skvarla. “We are sort of the watchdog in a way for the Senate.”
After each inauguration, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is responsible for organizing the inaugural events at the Capitol, sends a complete set of printed materials related to the inaugural’s organization to the National Archives, Smith said. But she added that the committee was less consistent in the nonorganizational materials it sent to the archives.
“A lot of collections we are finding, outside of ours, are opportunistic in their collecting. It comes their way and they take it or they don’t,” Smith said. “We are trying to be systematic in our collecting and [hope to have], for example, a ticket from the presidential platform for every inaugural that’s happened here at the Capitol … that’s something that we wish for.”
This inauguration, Smith said the curator’s office had already requested that artifacts be set aside by the JCCIC (which has pledged a complete set of all printed inaugural materials), the Capitol Police and the Congressional press galleries.
“Everybody has promised us in advance everything we are looking for,” she said. Still, Smith added with a chuckle, given the very real possibility that an item is overlooked, “I may be out there getting carpet again.”