Herbert Hoover’s First Lady

On August 10, 1874, Herbert Clark Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa. Jesse Clark Hoover and Hulda Randall Minthorn were born in this area, primarily inhabited by Quakers, as were the Hoovers. He was one of Jesse and Hulda’s three brothers, the others being his brother Theodore Jesse and sister Mary Blanche. Jesse, Herbert’s father, died in 1880 when Herbert was only four years old. Herbert’s mother, Hulda, died only four years later, in 1884, leaving Herbert and his siblings orphans.

He was a successful engineer and humanitarian who raised two gifted children with his extraordinary wife, Lou Henry Hoover. His early success aided his 1899 marriage to Lou, who later joined him on his Asian journeys. She learned Mandarin Chinese there, one of many languages she would learn in her life. They were blessed with two sons, Herbert Jr. and Allan, born in London in 1903 and 1907, respectively, while their father transitioned his business from China to England.

Lou Hoover was more than a wife; she was Herbert Hoover’s business partner and the humanitarian work he oversaw under President Woodrow Wilson’s orders during and after World War I. Hoover managed the Belgian Commission for Relief, the United States Food Administration, and the American Relief Administration, all of which may have saved the lives of roughly twenty million Europeans between 1915 and 1923.

Lou Henry Hoover

Portrait of Lou Henry Hoover

On March 29, 1874, Lou Henry was born in Waterloo, Iowa. She was Charles and Florence Weed Henry’s firstborn child. Her father, Charles, was a banker, and her mother, Florence, was a stay-at-home mom. Charles Henry was one of the founders of a new bank in Whittier, California when the Henry family moved west in 1885. In 1892, the family relocated to Monterey, California, where Charles joined another bank.

Lou, who attended Waterloo and Shell Rock public schools, loved camping and fishing and had a profound respect for her home state’s natural and wildlife state. She was described to stood five foot and eight inches with blue eyes and light brown hair.

She was also interested in broader public issues as a young woman. At the age of fourteen, it was evidenced by two school essays she wrote titled “Universal Suffrage” and “The Independent Girl.” Her scholarly pursuit of geology was encouraged following a Stanford University professor’s lecture on the subject during a short time when she was working as a clerk in the bank run by her father in Monterey for a year. She had a professional view on the field as both a student and the wife of a specialist in the field; she later became a member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, despite never having worked as a miner or geologist.

Her adviser, J.C. Branner, introduced Lou Henry to his aide, senior class member Herbert Hoover, during her first year at Stanford. They shared not only an Iowa connection but also a passion for geology and fishing. Following graduation, Hoover worked as a gold miner for a British mining firm in Australia. Herbert Hoover rose through the company’s ranks, earning ever-increasing wages and becoming a millionaire at a young age.

He sent Lou Henry a telegram from Australia, asking her to marry him, which she gladly accepted. Father Ramon Mestres of the San Carlos Borromeo Mission, a Roman Catholic priest, conducted the Hoovers in a civil ceremony. Neither a Quaker nor an Episcopal minister was available to perform their wedding. In the interim, Herbert Hoover accepted the young Chinese Emperor’s offer to be Director-General of the Chinese Government’s Department of Mines following her graduation. They rode the ferry to San Francisco later that day. They set out for China the next day, on February 11, 1899.

Girl Scout Movement

In the 1920s, she was also very involved in the Girl Scout movement, devoting many hours and energy. Lou was a troop leader, a member of the Washington Girl Scout Council. She also became the GSA president twice, once in the 1920s and once in the 1930s. The GSA leadership approved a national initiative to bake and sell cookies to support scouting during her second term.

Lou Hoover was drawn to the movement because it could mobilize thousands of healthy young women to respond to crises and disasters, which she had firsthand experience with during World War I.

Life as the First Lady

Lou Hoover was a well-known figure. Also, she became the first First Lady to speak on the radio, despite not giving many speeches or giving interviews. 

Lou Hoover chose to limit her adult life of public activism when she became First Lady despite her extensive record of activism, public speaking, fundraising, and a high level of conscientious professionalism in everything she did before becoming First Lady. Her short address to the Daughters of the American Revolution on April 19, 1929, was broadcast on the radio just over a month after becoming First Lady.

She sparked some debate by inviting Jesse DePriest, an African American congressman’s wife, to tea at the White House. Lou had no reservations about asking Jessie DePriest; her only concern was how to deal with any white segregationists who might object or mistreat their fellow congressional spouse.

Her most recent visits to Iowa were during her husband’s two presidential campaigns. In 1928, she accompanied him on trips to Cedar Rapids and West Branch, and in 1932, she accompanied him to Des Moines. She didn’t return to Iowa after that.

Lou Hoover was looking forward to spending more time in California after the Hoovers left Washington, D.C. in 1933. The Hoovers started to split their time between Palo Alto and New York City in the late 1930s. She had an acute heart attack on January 7, 1944, from which she did not recover.