Where did House and Senate's big gavels come from?

Until the mid-1950s, the Senate used a unique ivory gavel dating from 1789.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California addresses the House after giving newly elected House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio the gavel Wednesday.

Where did the presiding officers of the House and Senate get those gavels they’re whapping on their desks? That’s a natural question that arises from watching the opening day of a new session of Congress.

OK, maybe it’s not a natural question so much as an odd thought that occurs to an inquisitive observer. Look at the hammer Speaker John Boehner has – it’s so big we bet it could whack $100 billion out of the budget all by itself. And the Senate one doesn’t even have a handle. It looks like an hour glass, or maybe an egg cup that majority leader Harry Reid brought from home.

It turns out that House and Senate gavels have very different provenances that speak to the profound differences in the chambers themselves.

The House gavel is prosaic and effective – a matter-of-fact professional’s tool. Most (there have been many) were made in the House carpenter’s shop. Their terms are short, like those of representatives. Some have even been shattered by autocratic House leaders. In 1906, then-Speaker Joseph Cannon hit his desk so hard the head of the gavel flew off and landed between the clerks on the lower tier of the rostrum.

In contrast, the Senate gavel is an artifact steeped in tradition. Until the mid-1950s, presiding officers of the Senate used a gavel reputed to date from the chamber’s first sessions in 1789. This knocker was a handle-free ivory cube carved from a single elephant tooth.

It held up pretty well over the years, but in 1954, during a heated debate on civilian nuclear power, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who was presiding over the Senate at the time, hammered the gavel down so hard it broke into several pieces.

The newly independent nation of India supplied an ivory replacement. It’s a close replica of the 4-inch-tall original, except for a floral band carved around its center.

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