senators signing desks, senators sign desks
Ted S. Warren/AP
Senate Chambers of the Washington
State Capitol

Outgoing Senators Make History by Signing Desks

January 02, 2009 08:59 AM
by Isabel Cowles
As the year draws to a close, U.S. senators are encouraged to participate in a century-old tradition: signing their desk to commemorate a term of service. 

Signatures Mark Senate Tenure

The tradition of senators signing their desks dates back to the 19th century, when senators began listing themselves on the inside of their desk drawers.

In the case of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, the signatures seem to have been written by staff members to match the signatures of the senators, indicating that the senators themselves were not responsible for chronicling their tenure; however, the official U.S. Senate Web site explains it is possible that the drawers were replaced and the signatures replicated for the sake of history.

The site goes on to suggest that senators in recent decades have taken the act more seriously, being sure to sign their desks on their way out. Some have even engraved the desks with their signatures, to prevent their names from being worn away.

Many senators enjoy the tradition; retiring Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) told Politico that the tradition of desk signing is important to him. “During the days of life sitting on the floor,” he said, “who hasn’t peeked in their desk and looked at the names and said, ‘They kept this old republic together, and I have a duty to do the same?’"

However, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that she was uncomfortable signing the three desks she’s occupied as a two-term senator.

Reference: Other Senate Traditions

Since the First Congress convened in 1789, many traditions have evolved within the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate Web site offers an overview of some of the better-known rules, traditions and procedures, including the symbolism of choosing and occupying desks.

Related Topic: Hideouts at the U.S. Senate

In 2007, an Associated Press article noted that in addition to personal desks, some senators enjoy the privilege of secret offices. These “hideaways” serve as places where senators can work and host meetings without interruption—although they have also been a refuge for less professional affairs. According to Robert Parker’s memoir, “Capitol Hill in Black and White,” Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson frequently turned his secret office into a “love nest. He would invite a woman there at the end of the day to ‘take dictation.’”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines