By Anne Ruppert, Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site
Flag Day is celebrated across the United States annually on June 14. Though the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site contains several flags and multiple objects that bear the image of the American flag, one of our favorite “flag” objects is actually a set of objects. A set of china dishes, to be exact.
Sam Rayburn traveled up the ranks of House leadership from his freshman year in Congress in 1913. He was appointed to the powerful Committee of Interstate and Foreign Commerce in 1913 and became the chairman of that committee in 1931. In this role, he played an important part in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
In 1937 Rayburn was elected the House Democratic Majority Leader. On September 16, 1940 he was elected Speaker of the House following the sudden death of Speaker William B. Bankhead. It was in this position—that Rayburn held for 17 non-consecutive years—that he put his stamp on the American consciousness.
When Rayburn took over the Speaker’s chair in 1940, he benefited from a few perks of the position; a chauffeur-driven limousine, the large and opulent Speaker’s suite of offices, and a raise in salary. Perhaps more meaningful than all these items was a set of dishes, each decorated with an emblem featuring the Speaker’s rostrum and the American flag.
The origination story of the china is a bit murky. The current seal for the Speaker of the House of Representatives pictures an eagle atop a globe mounted on the official Mace of the U.S. House of Representatives. Thirteen stars surround it with the year 1789 above (the year of the first Congressional Congress).
According to the Curator for the House of Representatives, the Speaker’s seal found on the china at the Sam Rayburn House was never used in any official capacity and there are no other known uses of it. We know that it was commissioned by former Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth in 1927.
However, Longworth apparently failed to establish funding for the china. The U.S. Senate refused to approve funding for it. Therefore, the dishes sat unused in the Capitol basement for 13 years.
When Rayburn was elected Speaker of the House in 1940, members of the Texas delegation pooled their money and purchased the china for him. According to an article in the Sherman Democrat from 1947, the set included 700 pieces. Rayburn kept it in the Speaker’s dining room in the Capitol where it would have been used when Rayburn hosted meals for his fellow politicians.
Rayburn lost his position as Speaker in January 1947 after a Republican majority in congress took office that winter. Rayburn was elected the House Minority Leader, but the loss of the Speakership still stung. Rayburn decided that since he was no longer Speaker of the House, he would give away many of the pieces of china to his fellow Texas congressmen.
The rest of the china was packed and shipped to Bonham. In a 1977 interview, Rayburn’s secretary Bernice Newman recalled helping Sam and his sister Lucinda Rayburn unpack the china at their Bonham home.
She relayed the event, “One Saturday I came out here with his mail, and there were three or four barrels of dishes that he had brought that had the ‘Speaker’s Seal’ on it. As I got out of the car he said, ‘Come on here Bernice and help me unpack these dishes.’ And we worked all afternoon, he, and ‘Miss Lou,’ and I unpacking dishes and stacking them.”
When Rayburn took the china home to Bonham, several reporters (unjustly) noted that he had taken it from its new and rightful owner, the new Speaker of the House Joe Martin. However, these reports were incorrect. The china technically belonged to Rayburn since it was gifted specifically to him by the Texas delegates.
Today, the Sam Rayburn House contains just a fraction of that set of 700 pieces. Once the set came home to Bonham in 1947 it was even further disassembled. Rayburn was known to give away a cup and saucer to a friend after drinking a cup of coffee with him or her.
The Speaker’s china was made by the Warwick China Company of Wheeling, West Virginia which operated from 1887 until 1951. Each piece in the Speaker’s china set includes the “Warwick” maker’s mark with the logo of a knight’s helmet and two crossed swords.
The china company’s name, “Warwick” and accompanying logo, was inspired by the Warwick Castle in England. The company’s owners believed the name gave the company distinction. The E.B. Adams Company of Washington D.C., which dealt in wholesale china and glass, distributed the set. Similar style pieces (with varying emblems and patterns) would have been found in hotels, restaurants, and in railroad dining cars during the mid-twentieth century.
On your next visit to the Sam Rayburn House, be sure to check out the very small American flag on the emblem of Sam Rayburn’s china. You can find the china on display in both the home’s dining room and the breakfast room.
The Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site in Bonham tells the real story of Sam Rayburn, one of the most powerful and influential politicians of the 20th century, in his authentic 1916 home. Preserved as a period time capsule, the two-story home contains all original Rayburn furnishings. The Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site is one of 22 historic attractions operated by the Texas Historical Commission. For more information, see www.visitsamrayburnhouse.com.