The Feather Duster Affair of 1874

U.S. Grant (Source: Library of Congress0
When President Grant decided to abolish the District's territorial government in 1874 he probably had no idea that cleaning supplies would go missing. (Photo source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

Understanding the history of local government in the District of Columbia is tricky business. The governance structure has changed several times since the city was founded in 1791 and, sometimes, these changes were quite dramatic... which brings us to the 1870s.

The Civil War saw D.C.’s population explode and overwhelm the public works of the city. In an effort to make things run more smoothly, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1871, which repealed the individual charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown and established a territorial government for the entire District of Columbia. This new territorial government, approved by President Ulysses S. Grant, included an elected 22 member House of Delegates that was racially mixed, a Board of Public Works, an appointed governor and a council.[1]

As it turned out, the territorial government experiment would be short-lived. Governor Alexander “Boss” Shepherd racked up big bills in an effort to modernize the city and President Grant felt compelled to make a change.

On June 20, 1874, while in session on the second floor of Metzerott Hall (on the site now occupied by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building), delegates received notice that the House of Delegates, along with the Board of Public Works and the Governor’s office was being replaced with a three member commission appointed by the President. Just like that, the delegates were unemployed.

They were not pleased, to put it nicely. In an unprecedented response, angry delegates “began to seize upon all the portable articles of furniture on the premises and carry them off for their own private use.”[2] Some men carried chairs. Others carried desks. One particularly sneaky fellow grabbed a feather duster and hid it down the leg of his pants.

Why on earth would anyone steal a feather duster, you may ask? Well, apparently they were all the rage as far as cleaning supplies were concerned back then. The feather duster was new technology, having been invented in an Iowa broom factory in 1870.[3]

Well, at any rate, most of the would-be thieves didn’t make it very far with their loot. Authorities cracked down and most of the items were recovered. The fluffy duster thief “became the butt of the newspaper jesters of the time.”[4]

It seems, however, that Federal Government didn’t find the traveling feather duster to be a laughing matter. After all, home rule wouldn’t return to the District until 1973.


  1. ^ McCloud, Carrie. "Today in D.C. History: D.C.’s ‘Feather-Duster’ Legislature Meets for Last Time." Washington City Paper, June 20, 2011. (accessed June 20, 2013).
  2. ^ Chilton, William Edwin, and John Downey Works. Fiscal Relation Between the United States and the District of Columbia. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1916, p. 1736-1737.
  3. ^ Corbit, Robert McClain. History of Jones County, Iowa, Past and Present, Volume 1. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1910, p.477.
  4. ^ Tindall, William. "Homes of the Local Government." Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C.. (1900): 279-302.
Last Updated: 
November 2, 2020