Passing One Of Many, Many Gavels

January 4, 2011

Travis Larchuk

As the 112th session of congress begins, the gavel is passed from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner.

Make that "a" gavel is passed.

That's because the Speaker of the House doesn't use just one gavel: He or she uses many.

One reason, according to House historian Matt Wasniewski? "Gavels break from frequent use."

One historic gavel-breaking incident comes courtesy of former speaker Joe Cannon.

"We have accounts where he's gaveling away furiously and the head flies off and lands one or two rows down the rostrum among the reading clerks," Wasniewski says.

Aside from the occasional gaveling accident, speakers also like to hand out gavels as souvenirs.

Changing Design

Over the years, House gavels have been made in different sizes with different materials. The current design is made of maple, has a lacquer finish and accent lines burned into the wood.

The gavels are made on-site, by carpenters at the capitol. The Office of the Architect wouldn't allow the gavel makers to discuss the process on tape, but one expects a few hundred gavels will be made for this congress.

Though many of the gavels fall out of use, one has managed to distinguish itself and stick around. It's a gavel set aside by the Clerk of the House for use once every two years to open a new session of congress.

"This tradition does date all the way back to the last century," Elliott says.

All the way back to the far-off year of 1999.

"The Clerk of the House used a gavel to open the proceedings of Congress and decided to save that gavel and use it again to open every Congress. So the clerk took that one gavel, put a piece of Scotch tape around it so he would remember to use that gavel next time, and kept it," she says.

The residue from the Scotch tape is still visible on the surface of that gavel.

The Senate Gavel

In contrast, the Senate really does use just one gavel. It doesn't have a handle, and looks more like an hourglass-shaped paperweight made of ivory.

House curator Farar Elliott says the original dates back at least to the early 1800s, but that one's no longer in use.

"In the 1950s, then vice president Richard Nixon was presiding over the senate, and he rapped it, and it broke," Elliott says.

The government of India kindly sent a replacement, which the Senate has used ever since. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.