As outgoing Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi officially handed over her job to John Boehner on Wednesday. In doing so, she gave him the House's symbol of power: the Speaker's gavel. "I now pass this gavel, which is larger than most gavels here, but the gavel of choice of Speaker Boehner," Pelosi said, a cheeky remark that elicited laughter from the Representatives gathered in the chamber. She wasn't kidding. Boehner's gavel is so big, it resembles a croquet mallet.
Sadly, it won't be the one he uses every day. According to the New York Times, aides said the gavel was a handmade celebratory gift to Boehner from one of his Ohio constituents though they wouldn't say who. But it's not as if Pelosi doesn't know from comically large, symbolic hammers. She wielded one in a memorable set of photos taken after Congress passed the health care reform bill, which she had so vigorously hammered for. (In fact, her gavel seemed to be even bigger than Boehner's is.)
Size aside, today's gavels appear stronger than they used to be. In 1906, according to the House's Office of the Clerk, Speaker Joseph Cannon who appeared on the cover of TIME's first issue banged one so hard that he knocked the head off. Years later, Speaker Champ Clark broke two gavels during the opening session alone, and Speaker Nance Garner broke three of them during the first week of the 1931 congressional session. (It's said that Garner ordered an "unbreakable" gavel made of black walnut after that.) The longest-serving Speaker, Sam Rayburn, was quoted equating the office of House Speaker with the gavel itself. He collected a number of the items, one of which was reportedly made of timber dating back to the burning of the White House in 1814.
Over in the Senate, an ivory gavel that was given in 1954 as a gift by the Indian Vice President is still in use. That item (shaped like a tiny hourglass that is held within the hand) replaced the former gavel, which had been in use since at least the 1830s. It was broken after then Vice President Richard Nixon beat the old one too hard.
For the 112th Congress, most of the several hundred gavels (built by the House Carpentry Shop) that will be used to open and close House business are made of lacquered maple, with accent lines burned into them. Unlike Boehner's monstrous mallet, they are of a modest and reasonable size. Better on the wrists.