Lou Henry Hoover
Geologist, Humanitarian, First Lady
By Anne Adams
Lou Henry was far from the “average” young woman of the early 20 th century, since she specialized in geology in college, began her married life in China where she and her husband dodged bullets in the Boxer Rebellion, and then went on to further aid her husband in international relief efforts as well as in the White House. Yet in whatever she did Lou was above all a partner and assistant to her husband, businessman, public servant and President Herbert Hoover . As she once told an interviewer: “I majored in geology in college but have majored in Herbert Hoover ever since.”
Born in Waterloo , Iowa (the same year and same state as her husband) in 1875, Lou Henry was the daughter of a banker who took his daughter on hunting and fishing trips, which meant that she developed the outdoor skills that would later serve her well in her active life. Her mother’s illness caused the family move to California in 1885 to seek a better climate, and there at their home in Monterey Lou grew into a tall stately blonde. She graduated from San Jose State and though she worked in her father’s bank and taught school, it was after she attended a lecture by a geologist that she was inspired her to enroll at Stanford University to study the subject. She was the only girl in her class and this was where she met Herbert Hoover. Since he was a senior and a teaching assistant, she was glad to accept his offer for help in her studies.
Hoover ’s parents had died when he was very young, and he had been raised by relatives, but now that he was making his own way in life, he was trying to gain an education and work at the same time. He soon graduated but as he and Lou became more serious about each other, Hoover knew they could not be married until he found a well paying job. For the next three years as she continued her education and he worked at various jobs, they corresponded, When she graduated she returned to teaching school as Hoover worked both in the U.S. and in Australia for various mining companies.
Then after Hoover had worked in Australia for a few months, his employer asked him to go to China to represent their company and be a mining engineer consultant to the Chinese government. With the promise of a larger salary, Hoover cabled a marriage proposal to Lou. Hoover was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Lou had assumed his faith, so when there was no Friends “meeting” in Monterey they were married in February 1899 in a civil ceremony. They set sail for China within a few days, and upon their arrival, Lou not only set up a home in an apartment in Peking she also began to learn the Chinese language, and was soon able to speak it even better than her husband. She helped Hoover by researching the geology of the areas he was to visit, helped write his reports, and traveled with him by means of canal boat, pack mule and horseback.
Soon after their arrival, a growing resentment of some Chinese against the foreigners led to an uprising called the Boxer Rebellion. It was about this time that the Hoovers found themselves stranded in Tientsin but while Lou carried a gun for protection, Hoover worked to import food for the Western and the Chinese refugees – the first of a series of relief efforts that he would undertake. During the brief siege at Tientsin while Hoover and the other men formed a protective force, Lou nursed the wounded, planned and served meals including taking afternoon tea to the sentries, and making daily rounds on a bicycle despite having her tire punctured by a stray bullet. Lou also discovered an unexpected advantage to their protective barricades made up of flour barrels or sacks of rice. “Cooking was easy and so was the marketing,” she said later. “All we had to do when we were hungry was tap the barricades.”
Eventually it became evident that the Chinese no longer needed Hoover ’s services as a mining engineer consultant so after a few more years they moved to London . There Hoover became a junior partner in a British company that would send him all over the world to supervise their projects. Lou went along, as did the babies – Herbert junior born in 1903 and Alan in 1907. Then in 1908 Hoover became an independent consulting mining engineer and his international assignments meant more travel as well as a greatly increased income. .
In 1912, Lou and Hoover published an English translation (from the Latin) of a mid-1500s treatise on mining and metallurgy, with Lou doing the translation and Hoover interpreting the scientific references. The specially printed version of “De Re Metallica” soon because a collector’s item The Hoovers were back in London in 1914 but when they could not immediately return at the outbreak of war they began to assist the other stranded Americans. Hoover began to raise funds and credit for their fellow stranded countrymen while Lou helped find food, shelter, and even sightseeing opportunities for the tourists while they waited.
In October, 1914, Hoover was asked to direct a relief program for Belgium , whose citizens were starving because of the deprivation that came from the German invasion. Lou assisted him in Europe and at home in America , particularly with speeches and fund raising. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover as the administrator for the domestic Food Administration which was designed to conserve food for the war effort, and he transferred his relief efforts to Washington, As usual Lou was hard at work assisting as she could. In 1921, Hoover joined the Warren Harding administration as Secretary of Commerce and while Lou entertained as her position required, she also became involved with various women’s organizations, as well as the Girl Scouts as honorary president. She guided the organization as the membership grew from 100,000 girls to a million and their fundraising efforts brought in an additional million dollars. It was at this time that the Girl Scouts and partly through Lou’s efforts that the Girl Scouts became as well known as the Boy Scouts.
While Hoover genuinely liked President Harding, and thought he tried to be a good president, he was not a part of the President’s notorious White House social life. Then in 1928, he took the opportunity to run for the presidency himself when he received the Republication presidential nomination. Lou was at first reluctant to join Hoover as he campaigned, but he persuaded her. “I need you there. Who else should receive all the bouquets?” He was elected president that year.
When Lou entered the White House she sought to establish a family home – something she had done many times in many parts of the world in much less luxurious environments. One of her new policies was to offer meals to her guests instead of just tea, and her busy schedule of entertaining as well as what some saw as her imperious attitude proved unpopular with the White House domestic staff. The Hoovers remodeled the family living quarters (despite the servants’ disapproval), and held numerous dinners, many unscheduled, for foreign and domestic guests, as well as the usual 10 formal receptions a year. They preferred the domestics to be practically invisible as they served dinner and stood ready, and never react to anything that was said or done at the dinner table. The staff admired them but there was an ever-present barrier. “I found it much easier to admire the Hoovers than to like them,” said Executive Mansion housekeeper Ava Long, “Finer persons never lived, but President and Mrs. Hoover rarely broke through the barrier between those who serve and those who are served.” However, while they did entertain lavishly they often paid many household expenses out of their own funds. Also, Lou retained all of the staff that were on duty when Hoover became president, though Eleanor Roosevelt discharged many when she entered the White House in 1933.
As the Depression became a major part of the last months of the Hoover presidency, the President worked longer and longer, trying to find solutions to the nation’s problems. Yet the nation was apparently anxious for a change and when Hoover was defeated in 1932 the family returned to California .
However, Hoover was too interested in public service to retire completely and in 1934, the Hoovers moved to New York City to resume life in the public eye from their apartment at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Lou succumbed to heart failure on January 7, 1944 and only after her death did her husband discover that she had long quietly assisted many young people with direct financial aid and encouraging letters. Her husband continued his public service into the next few years, including administering relief programs after World War II for the Truman administration and heading the Hoover Commission that sought governmental reforms. He died in 1964.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”