The scandal surrounding missing Secret Service texts from January 6th deepened on Monday, with investigating House Committees alleging that the Department of Homeland Security interfered in efforts to recover the records. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Tracking History’s Mysteries,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman looked at other seismic political events in which important pieces of contextual evidence were lacking, from the 1804 Burr-Hamilton Duel to the 1920 Wall Street Bombing. The appropriate methods to protect political records have long been discussed in Washington, but perhaps no more poignantly than in 1877, when a fire sparked a philosophical inquiry into the importance of documenting America. 

On September 24th, 1877, a fire broke out at the Patent Office Building shortly after noon. The blaze spread to the upper floors of the Greek Revival structure of wood and marble, which today houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. 

By the time that firemen arrived, rooms in the attic lofts containing patent models and drawings were engulfed in flames. As many as 1,800 clerks who worked in or around the Office risked burns or worse to remove relics and documents as the fire raged on into the night.  

Washingtonians were shocked. “The crowd which watched the rapid destruction of the building could scarcely credit their own senses,” reported the New York Tribune. “This great structure, covering two blocks, has always been regarded as solid masonry.”

In their own account of the blaze, the Patent Office described out-of-work laborers attempting to get brief employment cleaning the wreckage, an indication of the continued economic downturn that had followed the Panic of 1873: “Hundreds of men gathered on the walks and in the streets near the two principal entrances ‘waiting for work!.’ The eagerness with which they watched every one who went in or came out, and the patience with which they waited long after word had been given out that no more could be employed, told the story of their need.”

When the smoke cleared, 87,000 models were destroyed, around two-fifths of all of those in the Office. Most had been copied or photographed, but about 10% were lost for good. The models included miniatures of water wheels, seeders, pumps, orchard tiles, bridges, and fences. Eli Whitney’s initial model of the cotton gin was gone. A plunderer tried to make off with the original model of the Howe sewing machine, but was caught before his exit. Initial financial estimates of the loss were around $1.5 million, or $42 million in today’s dollars. 

The Patent Office building had burned before, in 1836, when the collection was housed at the Blodgett Hotel. The resultant loss of records had set off a legal scramble for patent suits, given that the models were often the only way to check for an existent innovation. Again, the Tribune predicted, a lawyerly stampede would emerge from the ashes: “Patent attorneys and interested corporations will seize upon every possible pretext to contest improvements on every class of inventions, where there is the slightest obscurity in drawings or specifications.” 

The legal concerns were accompanied by a fervent focus on public safety. Two days after the latter fire, on September 26th, 1877, Hayes appointed a commission of three of Washington’s leading government architects to evaluate the safety of public buildings and to ponder a scheme for keeping records safe. 

The commission was led by Thomas Lincoln Casey, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers. Casey was from a storied Rhode Island military family; his father, Silas Casey, helped to lead the charge on Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War in 1847. The younger Casey was a prodigious engineer. A year after the inquiry, in 1878, he would begin the quest to finally complete the Washington Monument, which had been put on hold more than two decades earlier. 

James G. Hill, the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, joined Casey on the Commission.  Hill was preparing to oversee the construction of the massive Romanesque Revival Auditor’s Building

The third and final member of the commission was Edward Clark, the official Architect of the U.S. Capitol. Clark, in office since 1865, had focused on the Capitol grounds, employing famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design a floral terrace. Clark had also worked extensively on the Patent Office building, which was barely finished at the time of the blaze and had been under construction for 31 years, since shortly after the previous fire. 

On October 22nd, 1877, the commissioners submitted their report, “Security of Public Buildings to Fire.” The bulk of the report ticked through the relative flammability of various federal buildings, from the Old Navy Department Building to the Government Printing Office. 

The architects, however, also opined significantly on the balance between responsible record-keeping and bureaucratic bloat, coming down squarely on the side that keeping all records was the only way to avoid scandal and historical irresponsibility. 

“The number of papers is increasing rapidly, and in the consideration of the case and preservation of the files this Commission has met with the suggestion that many of the papers could well be destroyed,” the commissioners wrote. “After a careful examination of this question, we do not consider it advisable to recommend this course with any of the records, however unimportant they may appear.”

“Every paper worthy at any time to be recorded and placed in the public files may be of value at some future time, either in a historical, biographical or pecuniary way, to the citizen, or the nation. Papers seemingly of the least importance have been connected with the proof of false demands against the government, and it is scarcely possible to arrive at a decision of what is important to be preserved and what is useless to be destroyed.”

The Commissioners even suggested the creation of a “fireproof building of ample dimensions,” most likely of brick, to house all government documents “no longer required for constant use.” 

The Secretary of the Interior, who oversaw the patent office, was famed reformer Carl Schurz. In the aftermath of the blaze, Schurz had to contend with conspiratorial reports — pushed by the Baltimore Sun and the San Francisco Chronicle — that the fire was actually a cover-up operation designed to destroy files from the “Indian Ring” scandal, a kickback scheme for selling trading posts in the West that had led to the impeachment of President Grant’s Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, the previous year. 

“Records bearing upon the Indian Ring and the desert-land thieving schemes have, perhaps, to the good fortune of some of our political worthies, been canceled by the flames of that conflagration,” wrote the Chronicle on October 19th. “Fire, as well as death, is an angel of mercy in many a case of moral delinquency in these days of undue political and financial ambition.” The Indian Ring files, however, did not appear to be among the records lost in the fire. 

Secretary Schurz concurrently looked into the causes of the fire. On October 12th, Schurz issued his report to Hayes, which contended that a grate fire in a clerk’s office likely sent sparks flying to the partially-wooden roof. 

Within Schurz’s inquiry was a letter from Ellis Spear, the U.S. Patent Commissioner and a hero at Gettysburg. As with the architects, Spear zeroed in on the potential historical, political, and social value of federal record-keeping. “Many of these models were doubtless of no value. Of the value of others no estimate can be made; many of them can undoubtedly be reproduced by the inventors from the same patterns from which the originals were made, but under the law these reproductions would be of no legal value for court or office purposes.”

Spear also suggested that models salvaged from the blaze could make the basis of a public museum:  “As illustrations of American invention a large museum might be stocked with such restored models, should the inventors think it desirable to furnish them.”

Not everyone, however, was quite so laudatory about immaculate record-keeping. Bret Harte, a satirical writer famous for his short stories about the California Gold Rush, wrote “The Great Patent-Office Fire,” a scathing denunciation of the Patent Office’s bloated bureaucracy and precious nostalgia published in the New York Sun in late October. 

In Harte’s fictionalized account, an Assistant Secretary of the Interior informs Schurz about the fate of another Secretary who ran into the fire, dying to preserve a piece of historical memorabilia: “It is to be regretted that the Secretary himself, in attempting to recover the waistcoats of George Washington from the devouring element, perished, miserably, in the flames.” 

The humor magazine Puck, then in its first year of English-language publication, also put out an imagined list of destroyed models in its October 3rd issue, in a proto-listicle called “Models Lost in the Patent Office Fire.” Many of the supposed models were 1870s in-jokes, but a couple were more comprehensible, if not cruel: “Model of a Mother-in-Law Exterminator. Patent in dispute—several hundred applicants,” and “Model of an Automatic Stump-Speaker. May be also used for Shakespearean readings.” 

Despite the eye-rolling from Harte and Puck, the respect for records expressed by the architects and Spear reigned supreme in Washington. The Patent Office Building was updated and fire-proofed by German-born architect Adolf Cluss, who won a massive 1878 design competition orchestrated by Schurz. Commissioner Casey later oversaw the construction of the Library of Congress’ massive Thomas Jefferson Building

The architectural reverence for records reflected the practice of retaining virtually every governmental document. An 1889 law permitted the destruction of some redundant documentation, but it was not until the 1934 National Archives Act that a more comprehensive system of disposal emerged. 

Now, as the missing Secret Service texts cause rancor on Capitol Hill, the post-fire belief in the power of strict record maintenance seems especially shrewd. 

For more on the history of federal record-keeping policy, read National Archives and Records Administration archivist Greg Bradsher’s 1985 article, “An Administrative History of the Disposal of Federal Records, 1789-1949.” 

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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