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Baking at the Capitol

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No, this is not a post about summer temperatures in Washington, D.C.  Rather, this is a post that a number of us have been dreaming about for several years.  For some curious reason, baking and law librarianship seem to be inextricably linked: many law librarians are master bakers, and those that are not are master eaters.  We were on the hunt for a post that would include the law, the Library of Congress, something historical, and baking.  Then in April my colleague, Betty came across an article about bakeries in the Capitol during the Civil War.  We knew we were on to the post of our dreams!

Beginning in November 1860, after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, and through the spring of 1861, eleven southern states seceded from the Union.  The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, signaled the beginning of four years of civil war and Washington, D.C. was mobilized as the headquarters for the Union.  Part of this mobilization meant finding quarters and providing supplies to the soldiers who descended on the Capitol.  The 37th Congress had left Washington at the end of March 1861, and the Capitol building was not in use.  The army took advantage of this situation and billeted 4000 soldiers there.  When Thomas U. Walter, who was the fourth Architect of the Capitol, returned to Washington at the beginning of July 1861, he was horrified by the conditions he encountered: soldiers and lice, provisions and ammunition filled the rooms of the Capitol.  In addition, the Army’s Commissary General had set up bakeries in the Capitol basement.  The Capitol basement had gas lines and 20 bread ovens were installed, eventually producing 58,000 loaves of bread daily.

Walter was not the only person horrified by this situation.  John G. Stephenson, the fifth Librarian of Congress, was equally distressed by smoke from these bakeries which were damaging the Library’s collections.  Apparently many of the bread ovens’ flues had been mistakenly run up the hot air vents for the library.   As Stephenson complained to Benjamin B. French, Commissioner of Public Buildings, “the treasure entrusted to my care … [is] receiving great damage from the smoke and soot that penetrated everywhere through the part of the Capitol which is under my charge without any means at my command to prevent it.”  Stephenson, also correctly realized that the only answer to this problem would be removal of the ovens.  The Army however was not inclined to move their operations.

When Congress returned to Washington in July 1861, the worry about the war had meant that the Army’s use of the Capitol had not been high on the list of concerns.  However by the fall of 1861, Congress wanted the Army and its ovens out of the Capitol building.  On December 17, 1861, the Senate passed a resolution that required Benjamin French to investigate the authority by which the Army had taken over the Capitol building and installed its ovens as well as possible remedies to this problem.  French replied to the Senate in a letter, which was subsequently printed as Senate Miscellaneous Document 8 (37th Congress).  Benjamin further quoted Stephenson’s letter to him in this report: “From this it will be seen that a much longer continuance of the bakeries will very much injure, if not ruin, the vast and valuable collection of books in the library of Congress, which has cost so much money and is of such immense value to the government.”  The Army had objected to the removal of the ovens, arguing that although possible, it would be too costly.  Benjamin however had been informed, by a “practical man,” that it should be possible to transfer the bakery operations without too much cost and proposed to move them to an old gas house, west of the Capitol.  The bakeries were removed from the Capitol building shortly thereafter.  In a ironic twist, Benjamin French’s house at 37 East Capitol street would be torn down in 1895 to make way for the construction of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building.

Capitol Subbasement in 1861. [Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol,
Capitol Subbasement in 1861. [Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol,

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