How Was the Assembly Room Furnished in the 1700s?

Interior view of a meeting room with two rows of tables facing a central table on a raised platform.
Curators studied the physical and documentary evidence to learn how the Assembly Room was furnished in the 1700s.

NPS photo

Imagine stepping back in time to witness the creation of the nation taking place in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. What would you see?

The National Park Service does not know exactly how the room appeared, or exactly where each man sat for the Second Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention. But, after decades of research, the park has created the best possible arrangement based on the available physical and documentary evidence.

Today, visitors see a room with a large chair and table on a raised platform facing two semi-circular rows of tables. Windsor chairs are grouped around the tables. Folding screens stand in each of the eastern (front) corners. Heavy woolen green tablecloths cover each table. A large glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Look carefully and you'll see some objects with a connection to signers of the Declaration of Independence, like the green shark's skin case with spectacles that once belonged to William Ellery (RI). We do not know if any of these objects were actually in the Assembly Room during their owners' time there.

The room contains two original artifacts (objects that were actually in the room 200 years ago) - the Speaker's chair (now known as the Rising Sun chair) and a decorative carved frieze. There are a number of historic furnishings from the 1700s on display, including the chandelier and the Windsor chairs. Those date to the time period but were not in this room 200 years ago. Some other items on display - documents, tablecloths, folding screens, window shades and more - are modern reproductions, but accurate to the time period. The seating arrangement, with the northern states on the north side of the room (left side, if you are facing the Speaker's chair) and the southern states on the south side of the room, is conjectural. This room reflects elements of both the Second Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention.

Take a Deep Dive

Channel your inner curator and take a closer look at the furnishings in the 1700s.

Scroll down or jump to the sections below:
Colonial Legislature
Second Continental Congress
Constitutional Convention
What Is The Evidence?

Colonial Legislature

Pennsylvania's colonial legislature - the Assembly - occupied this room from 1735 to 1775. They established the room layout that continued through the time of the Second Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention.

Speaker's Platform
The Speaker of the legislature sat at a large table on a raised platform in the front of the room. From this prominent position, the Speaker looked out to lawmakers seated at tables that faced him. By 1773, there were eleven tables for the then 11 counties of Pennsylvania.

Lawmakers may have gazed upon the decorative cockleshell (sea shell) frieze carving on the wall behind the Speaker. This ornamental feature is the only surviving element of the room's original 18th century woodwork. The Penn family crest had a place of importance on the wall directly below the frieze. Today, a late 1800s copy of the Penn family crest hangs in that spot.

Second Continental Congress

In the spring of 1775, Pennsylvania's legislature moved to a room on the second floor of the building while the Second Continental Congress moved into the Assembly Room. The delegates to the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence in this room on July 4, 1776. Fifty men signed the document here on August 2, 1776. Six men signed the Declaration of Independence later.

Seating Arrangement
When the Second Continental Congress sat in this room, each of the 13 colonies had a table. The tables are currently arranged to show the northern colonies on the north side of the room, and the southern colonies on the south side of the room. That seating arrangement is conjectural - no documented seating plan survives. A loosely woven green wool fabric called baize covered each table, as it had done during the sessions of the Pennsylvania legislature. Baize absorbed sound and stains, and blocked drafts. The green color - common in courtrooms, offices, and libraries - was perceived as neutral, practical, and dignified.

Speaker's Platform
The President of the Second Continental Congress presided from a chair (but not the one you see now) on the Speaker's platform in the front of the room. There may have been a Bible on the table. Displayed on the table today is a Bible printed by Robert Aitken in 1782.

Surviving receipts document that Philadelphia chair makers crafted Windsor chairs for this room. The British may have destroyed much of the original furnishings during the 1777-78 occupation. The Windsor chairs you see today date to 1750-1780, and represent the work of many different Philadelphia makers. They are from the time period, but not original to the room.

Constitutional Convention

In 1786, the Pennsylvania legislature returned to the Assembly Room, but not for long. They lent their room out again from May to September, 1787 - this time to the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. So, what did the room look like when the men signed the U.S. Constitution in this room on September 17, 1787? Well, much as it did during the Second Continental Congress - with a few exceptions, including the relatively new Speaker's chair, now known as the Rising Sun chair.

Speaker's Chair (Rising Sun chair)
In the front of the room today sits the chair known today as the Rising Sun chair. John Folwell made this chair for the Speaker of the Pennsylvania legislature in 1779. It remains a mystery as to who selected the symbols carved on the chair. Ancient symbols for liberty - the liberty cap and pole - appear on the chair's crest rail. The cornucopias and wheat sheaves on the chair's back probably speak to Pennsylvania's agricultural bounty. This chair achieved lasting fame as the seat for George Washington as the President of the Constitutional Convention.

When the Pennsylvania legislature moved on to the new state capitals - Lancaster in 1799 and Harrisburg in 1812 - they took the chair with them. The legislature returned the chair to the City of Philadelphia for display in the Assembly Room on George Washington's birthday in 1867.

It's not until the mid-20th century that the chair became known as the Rising Sun chair, but its connection to the idea of a rising sun goes back to September 17, 1787 - the day the delegates signed the U.S. Constitution. That day, Benjamin Franklin remarked that as the men argued that summer, he looked upon that carved sun wondering if it was a rising or setting sun. He said, "I have often ... in the course of the session ... looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun." For Franklin, that sun - in his estimation a rising one - symbolized hope for the new nation.

Chronology of the Rising Sun chair
  • December 1779: The Pennsylvania Assembly paid Philadelphia cabinetmaker John Folwell 200 pounds for the materials needed to build a Speaker’s chair and for the “State Arms” (a coat of arms). Presumably, the chair was delivered in early 1780.
  • 1787: George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention from the Speaker's chair.
  • 1799: The Speaker's chair traveled with the state government to its temporary home in Lancaster (the County Court House and State House, now called the Old City Hall).
  • 1812: The Speaker's chair traveled with the state government to the new capital in Harrisburg. The legislature convened in the old Dauphin County Courthouse while the new capitol building was being built.
  • 1822: The new Harrisburg capitol building opened.
  • 1835: Philadelphia antiquarian John Fanning Watson recorded seeing the Speaker's chair in the capitol building.
  • 1855: Philadelphia City Council first petitioned the state legislature for the return of the Speaker's chair.
  • 1867: The legislature returned the Speaker's chair to the Assembly Room on George Washington's birthday, February 22, 1867.

What Is The Evidence?

Curators use a variety of documentary evidence (receipts, letters, paintings) as well as the survival physical evidence (like the chandelier hook) to create the best conjectural recreation possible. Of course, they are always on the look out for new evidence to make a good restoration even better.

Here are some examples of evidence used in the recreation of the Assembly Room:
  • Governor John Penn mentioned the family crest located above the Speaker's chair in a letter to his brother in 1764.

  • A receipt survives for the purchase of baize table covers specifically to help with acoustic problems in the Assembly Room. The receipt is dated 1748.
  • Surviving receipts mention both window shades (in the 1750s) and Venetian blinds (after 1784). The National Park Service decided to display reproduction window shades as a reflection of the earlier receipt documentation, not the later Venetian blinds.

  • The engraving called Congress Voting Independence is the most accurate image of the Assembly Room during the Revolutionary War era. Artist Robert Edge Pine began his oil painting in 1784 but died before completing the work. Painter and engraver Edward Savage finished the work but died before completing the engraving. The Massachusetts Historical Society later acquired the engraving plate, printing engravings in 1859. Note that the Savage painting/engraving shows the cockleshell frieze.

Independence National Historical Park

Last updated: February 6, 2023