First Lady Feature: Lou Henry Hoover

By Molly Bloom

Lou Henry Hoover brought her passion for the outdoors and humanitarian projects from Iowa and California to China and London. Many credit Lou with the transformation of the position of First Lady from the primary role of entertaining guests to a more concerted focus on volunteerism and activism.

Her partnership with President Herbert Hoover allowed her to pursue their shared interests. While he lived in the spotlight, Lou took advantage of her own small platform and made the most of every opportunity.

Love Based on Adventure

Like her future husband, Lou Henry was born in Iowa and moved west, eventually attending Stanford University—where she met Hoover during his final year in college. Their shared experience of living in different parts of the country connected them, and Lou’s love of the outdoors and spirit of adventure seriously attracted Hoover, who was gearing up for a career in mining that would soon take him to Australia.

Hoover left for Australia to start his career while Lou finished her studies at Stanford. The two promised to keep in touch. And once Lou graduated, she launched into an adventure of her own, joining the local Red Cross Chapter to roll bandages for troops in the Spanish American War. (She would eventually become the chapter’s secretary-treasurer.)

Hoover, upon discovering that his work would take him next to China, came home to marry Lou in 1899. More adventure loomed on the horizon. Next, the newlyweds would sail to Shanghai.

The Meaning of Marriage

For Lou, her marriage meant an opportunity for adventure and advancement that would be difficult to achieve as a single woman in her era. Despite graduating Stanford as the first woman with a degree in Geology, she lamented to friends that her A.B. degree did not stand for “A Boy,” and she would not be easily granted a job in her field.

Lou spoke about Hoover’s position in China in her diary and letters to friends, and she asserted herself as an equal partner, saying “we” when referring to his position and career decisions. In Lou Henry Hoover, Nancy Beck Young writes, “Instead of rebelling against male privilege…Lou moved toward marriage and an unpaid public career… she expected a coequal partnership with her husband and used her marriage to expand her public, political rights.” (13).

Lou was seen by Hoover’s colleagues and friends as an equal, independent, and sometimes stubborn companion to the future president. In the Ladies Home Journal, Frederick Palmer shared an account of Hoover requesting Lou leave the city of Tianjin, China as the early stages of the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900. Lou stubbornly refused until he acquiesced grumpily, “All right, Lou.”

In the same article, Palmer tells the story of approximately 70 bullets firing on the Hoover household during the rebellion. Lou continued playing a game of solitaire while the wood of the house was splintered by bullets and there was a “fog of disintegrated plaster” (Mayer 79-80).

Stories of her bravery were widely circulated: she armed herself with a .38 pistol, refused to leave her friends and neighbors, rode her bicycle close to walls to avoid bullets, and volunteered medical assistance at the hospitals in the wake of the attacks. Even when her obituary prematurely appeared in a California newspaper, Lou seemed to shrug off the danger and continue the service that she deemed essential.

An Equal Partnership

Hoover’s mining career moved his family to London before the outbreak of WWI. When Belgian families faced starvation and Hoover established the Committee for the Relief of Belgium to provide a supply of food, Lou was in California with her sons. Hoover asked her to rally efforts, so Lou made public speeches that resulted in successful shipments of food reaching Belgium.

Lou also took things further, helping to market Belgian lace to Americans in order to support the Belgian craftswomen in need (Allen 64-5). She created an aid plan for American travelers stranded in Europe and assisted with clothing, childcare, and local accommodations. As Hoover’s career evolved towards public service, Lou matched (and sometimes outmatched) his efforts.

Lou also had projects of her own, separate from her husband’s service. One such endeavor was her work with the Girl Scouts. In 1917, Lou was asked by Girl Scouts founder Juliette Low to join the organization’s leadership. She’d go on to serve many positions over the years, from president to chair of the board.

The role of helping young girls develop social and homemaking expertise, as well as the “scouting” skills that she enjoyed in childhood, resonated with Lou’s love of the outdoors. During the organization’s formative period, Lou helped raise money, improved the Brownie program, and is even credited by some with the original sale of Girl Scout Cookies. She eventually recused herself from the formal leadership position when Hoover was elected to the presidency, but she continued to serve as the honorary president, a position held by the First Lady of the United States since Edith Wilson (who initially accepted the role at Lou’s urging). After the Hoovers left the White House, Lou returned to the Girl Scouts due to her passion for the program.

In the years leading up to Hoover’s presidency, Lou accompanied her husband and asserted herself as a subtle, yet equal, partner in his world travels and philanthropic efforts. Once in the White House, Lou continued to support the Girl Scouts and her other projects, even as she adapted to the role of First Lady. She supported the arts in Washington D.C. and the careers of musicians while also working on campaign strategies for her husband’s party. However, Lou also understood the importance of entertaining and her position as a model American wife, wholesome, unpretentious, and tasteful (Allen 128).

Lou’s Legacy

Lou Henry Hoover’s legacy encompasses not only the position of First Lady, but also her lasting public services and programs. In a 1914 letter, she wrote:

“The ambition to do, to accomplish, irrespective of its measure in money or fame, is what should be inculcated. The desire to make the things that are, better- in a little way with what is at hand [or] in a big way if the opportunity comes.”

Lou took advantage of opportunities large and small to make a difference. Today, she serves as a reminder of the importance of supporting humanitarian organizations to further their impact and the value in helping others during difficult times.

Sources:

Lou Henry Hoover: Activist First Lady by Nancy Beck Young

Lou Henry Hoover: A Prototype for First Ladies by Dale C. Mayer

An Independent Woman: The Life of Lou Henry Hoover by Anne Beiser Allen

Hebert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Herbert Hoover Edition

By Aaron Bauer

Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.

His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.

At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.

The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.

Hoover CRBThe organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.

His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:

                                                    I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,

When it comes to loving you.

By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”

Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:

“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”

One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.

With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Coolidge and HooverRepublican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.

Sources:

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte

Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye