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LOU HENRY HOOVER : A Biographical Sketch

An Iowa Girlhood

March of 1874 was a cold, blustery one in Waterloo, Iowa. While Mrs. Florence Weed Henry was awaiting the birth of her first child, Charles Henry was hoping over and over again that this child would be a boy. He couldn't wait to take his son out hunting, and fishing. Why, they could go camping up the Cedar... What fun they would have. As it turned out the baby was a girl. Lou Henry is what they decided to name her.

Charles Henry was a bank manager by day, but his real avocation was outdoorsman. He liked fishing, hunting, camping and riding. He knew quite a lot about the earth and all the natural wonders of flowers, trees, and rocks. These were the adventures that awaited Lou Henry.

As Lou grew up Mr. Henry took her on fishing and camping trips. He taught her all about the outdoors. Lou and her father spent time identifying rocks and plants. Mr. Henry instilled in Lou a love of the nature and wildlife around her.

In the wintertime, Lou loved sledding and skating on the same Cedar River that she fished in during the summer. She was often seen in her yellow and blue skating outfit that her mother had made, flying across the frozen river on her skates. She spent time walking the paths behind her home, where she would gather hazelnuts. Her father even taught her how to trap rabbits in the woods.

After school, Lou and her friends would play. They often had pretend tea parties. They also played ante over, and hide-and-seek.

Other favorite activities of girls in the 1880's were pasting pictures in scrapbooks, or reading to each other.

Dress-up parties or Masquerades were popular with Lou and her friends. She and Anna Sweet had a combined masquerade-birthday party for all of their friends, since their birth dates were so close to each other.

Florence Henry, Lou's mother, loved to sew. She taught Lou and her friends how to sew little Christmas presents. The girls and Mrs. Henry would sit for hours making Christmas gew gaws as Grandma Henry called the little sewn items. Grandma Henry couldn't see much value in this sort of activity.

Best of all, Lou liked to spend time outside. She organized baseball games in the street, climbed trees in her front yard, and loved to race around with her blonde pigtails flying behind her. She and her friends in the Waterloo neighborhood organized circuses in which each of the children would play various roles. They would invite everyone who wasn't acting in the circus to come and see it.

In the 1880's, girls were expected to be prim and proper. Girls who attempted Lou Henry's feats were usually labeled,"tomboys." Lou Henry, of course, once took a long rope, climbed up a tree during a school picnic, tied the rope to the tree, and thus provided a swing for the party. She didn't mind being called a tomboy.

Lou had a great love of horses. She learned to ride bareback on a big farm horse at her uncle's farm in Shell Rock, Iowa. Of course she also learned to ride side saddle as ladies had to do in the 1800's.

All of this outdoor adventure instilled in Lou a curiosity about all the wonders of the earth and nature.

When Lou was eight years old, her sister Jean was born. This completed the Henry family.


In 1885, about the time that Lou turned 11, the family decided to move to Whittier, California. This was a new town, founded by Quakers, in which Mr. Henry was going to help open a new bank. It would also be a good move for improving Mrs. Henry's health. The sunshine of California would do wonders for her.

The family packed up and after a brief time in Kansas, they took the train to California.

Lou Henry thrived in California. Her skills in athletics and organization gained her many friends. One day Lou wanted to organize a baseball game, but there was an obstacle. The whole playground was a rank mustard patch. Lou devised a contest: the team that cleared their side on the grounds first was to be fed refreshments by the other side. Even though Lou's team won, she took everyone home with her for snacks.

As befitting her character, she played Joan of Arc in the Bailey Street School play.

The family moved once more, but this time they stayed in California. They moved to Monterey, where Charles Henry started yet another bank. He was to become a partner in this bank. Lou grew to love Monterey. She rode horses up in the hills. She studied the local history and architecture of the town, and spent time in the outdoors that she loved.

In September of 1891, Lou enrolled at the Los Angeles Normal School. It was here that she joined the Agassiz Club. This club met after school once a week. The members collected items for the museum at the normal school. They collected unique live pets. This was not so unusual or unique for Lou since she had had a horned toad for a pet herself.

She transferred to San Jose Normal School in 1892, and received her teaching degree. She had prepared to become a teacher just as her mother had been before she married Charles Henry. Even though Lou had prepared to teach, she sought her father's advice about what she ought to do with her life. He had a profound affect on Lou's decisions. But before any decisions could be reached about what Lou should do now that she finished normal school, an event took place which altered the course of Lou's life.


Lou attended a lecture by a famous geologist from Stanford University. What Professor J.C. Branner had to say in that lecture struck a chord deep within Lou. He spoke to the students about a subject dear to her. After the speech, Lou approached Dr. Branner, and told him of her love of the outdoors and she also inquired about the study of geology for a woman. With Dr. Branner's encouragement, and that of her parents, Lou Henry enrolled in the Department of Geology at Stanford University. She was the first woman in that major at Stanford. Among her studies was Latin, one subject that would later prove invaluable to her.

While at Stanford, Lou met a senior assistant of Dr. Branner named Herbert Hoover. Hoover was one of the pioneer students at Stanford since he would be in its first graduating class.

At a dinner hosted by Dr. and Mrs. Branner, Lou and Herbert found out that they had quite a bit in common. They had been born within 100 miles of each other in Iowa, they were both geology majors, and they both loved to fish.

As Lou and Bert spent time together on field studies, they learned more and more about each other. In Lou Henry, Herbert Hoover saw a young woman who was self-reliant and able to live the life of a geologist.

Lou completed her degree in 1898. During the time that Lou was studying at Stanford, Herbert Hoover was mining in Australia. He had been sent to the middle of Australia by the British mining company that he now worked for.

After graduating from Stanford, Lou returned to her family home in Monterey. It was here that she received a cabled proposal of marriage from "Bert" Hoover. Herbert Hoover was to come to California from Australia via London to marry Lou, and right after the wedding they were to board a ship that was sailing to China!


The whirlwind wedding was planned around the sailing of the ship on February 11, 1899, so Lou and Bert were married on February 10th. They wore identical brown traveling suits which neither knew that the other had purchased. The Quaker Herbert Hoover, and the Episcopal Lou Henry were married by Father Mestres, a Roman Catholic priest from the Monterey Mission. This unusual arrangement occurred because Professor Thoburn who was to officiate had died a few weeks before the wedding. Since Lou knew Father Mestres from her brief substitute teaching in a schoolhouse just next to the Monterey Mission, he was asked to officiate at the wedding.

After a wedding luncheon of broth, a meat course with plenty of vegetables, and a chicken salad, Lou and Bert caught the 2:00 train to San Francisco where they would sail on the 11th of February for China.

On the ship, Lou and Bert read and studied materials about the Chinese people and their culture. Bert had been engaged as Director General of the Department of Mines of the Chinese Government. Since there had been very little progress in mining and metallurgy in China in many years, the young Emperor was trying to bring in modern methods. Herbert Hoover was to explore and investigate the conditions and the deposits in the mines and make recommendations for technical improvements.

The Hoovers settled in the city of Tientsin. Here Lou busied herself making a comfortable home for Bert. This was the beginning of a commitment that she would carry through on in many locations all over the world. She also explored the city, and was interested in Chinese culture. Lou described the foreign settlement at Tientsin as "a series of plots assigned to different nations." Since the 1860 Convention, the city was opened to foreign trade so the British, French, German, Russian, and Japanese established concession leases so that they could do business in China. The Chinese population of Tientsin grew as migrants from the countryside came to serve the foreign communities, and work on the wharves and the railways. The lifestyles of the foreign settlers in China provided comforts that most would not have been able to afford in their home country. They spent their leisure time playing cards, attending teas, and dinners. There was tennis, cricket, hockey, golf, and horse racing for entertainment.

Lou Hoover spent her time exploring Peking, Tientsin, and the countryside around her. She visited markets and palaces, and she developed a keen sense of what represented the best of Chinese artistry. She also learned the Chinese language. She secured a tutor and learned to speak and write Chinese. Herbert Hoover said that," the English speaking Chinese in town always addresses her in Chinese and me in English." (HH about LHH in Personal Correspondence File, LHH Papers).

Lou wrote letters to her family in Monterey. Mostly she asked for clothing that couldn't be made in Tientsin. Since she and Herbert were avid readers, they also asked for current books and magazines to be sent to them in China.

In early June of 1900, reports told of Boxers within a few miles of Tientsin. This uprising came about because the reforms ordered by the young Emperor did not sit well with the old ruling class in China. The Empress Dowager was prevailed upon by the angry Mandarins to remove the young Emperor from the throne. At the same time an anti-foreign sentiment sprang up in China. The Chinese believed that there was too much encroachment of foreign powers on China's territory and on Chinese life. The Chinese were also plagued by floods and crop failures at this time which they also blamed on foreigners. Thus the Ei Ho Chiang movement (The Closed Fist) arose. The name was loosely translated into Boxers. Their objective was to drive all foreigners into the sea, and kill the Chinese tainted by association with the foreigners.

During this Boxer uprising, the Hoovers were in Tientsin with about 800 people. Shortly, American, British, French, and Russian soldiers began to patrol the streets. Civilians helped the military by patrolling the settlement at night, and Lou of course took her turn on guard duty.

Lou Hoover also volunteered to work in the hospital, and helped to build barricades. She was given the duty of, "Chief Cowboy and Dairy Maid," since she took charge of some cows and calves brought in from the countryside before the uprising. Lou supervised the distribution of milk for children and the wounded. She rode her bicycle around Tientsin. Once her front tire was struck by bullets, but Lou didn't get upset. She took everything on stride. " Lou exuded a casual everydayness in times of danger or trouble." ( Dare Stark McMullin speech to establish Lou Henry Hoover memorial Forests and Wildlife Sanctuary, for Girl Scouts, 1944. In Hoover Scrapbooks Album 46.) She even wrote to her friend Evelyn Wight Allan that she had really missed something by not being in Tientsin that summer!

During the siege in the summer of 1900, 233 foreigners, mainly missionaries and their children, and 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed by the Boxers. It was no wonder that Charles Henry was relieved to receive the one word telegram which proclaimed that Lou and Herbert were "Safe." Their deaths had already been published in a New York paper.

The Hoovers left China in August of 1900 when relief troops came. They sailed to London. Most people would have tried to put the experiences of that China summer out of their minds, but Lou began instead to organize her notes and diaries in order to write up her experiences while they were still fresh. She wrote a manuscript on her China experiences during the Boxer rebellion but she never published it. She did however, publish an article entitled, " The Late Dowager Empress."

World Travelers

London would become the Hoover's home base for the next few years. They moved into a flat at 39 Hyde Park Gate, but Lou knew they'd be traveling again shortly. She hadn't lost her spirit of adventure.

Over the next few years the Hoovers traveled the world. As Herbert inspected mines for Bewick, Moreing and Company, Lou accompanied him. Some of the places they went included: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China , Burma, Egypt, Russia. Nothing kept Lou Hoover from a trip with Bert. After giving birth to their first son, Herbert Jr. on August 4, 1903, Lou was ready to travel within five weeks. The baby, a nurse, and the Hoovers left for Australia with baby Herbert in a traveling basket. Home became the place that the Hoovers were sent. By the time Herbert Jr. was one year old, he had been around the world twice.

While doing some research at the British Museum in London, Lou came across a book, Agricola de re Metallica. This work had been published in Latin in 1556, and was a manual of mining and metallurgy. Lou had been fascinated by this book since she had originally seen a copy of it in Professor Branner's laboratory at Stanford. After securing a copy of it for themselves from an antiquarian book dealer, Lou and Herbert began to translate the book into English. It was at this time that Lou's Latin language course came in so handy. The Hoovers worked on the translation over the next five years. It became their leisure time activity. The translation was published in 1912. Not only did this collaboration bring the Hoovers pleasure, but also it brought them a gold medal for achievement from the Mining and Metallurgical Society of America.

During her time in London, Lou also began to collect porcelains. She studied the histories and manufacturing processes of each piece of Ming and early Ch'ing porcelain that she acquired.

Allan Hoover was born on July 17, 1907 in London. Not to be out done by his brother Herbert Jr., Allan was packed off to Burma before he was six weeks old.

In 1908, Herbert left Bewick Moreing and Co. to form his own consulting firm. It was at this time that Lou found a big house on Hornton Street which would be their London home. It was dubbed the Red House. It was set in a garden, had steam heat and large bathrooms. This house became the Hoover's headquarters when they weren't traveling around the world.

The Hoover's favorite London recreation was attending the theater. They often attended a play a week. Sometimes they'd see even more than that.

Their home in London became famous among traveling Americans because the Hoovers often entertained. They were noted for their hospitality, and especially their Sunday evening suppers. Lou demonstrated a talent for keeping conversations going and making the guests feel comfortable. She had great skill in welcoming and entertaining guests, and in providing a background of comfort in the house. The house became a magnet for Californians traveling to London.

World War I

It was the war years of 1914 -1917 that would send Lou and Bert Hoover on, " the slippery road of public life." (Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Vol. 1, Years of Adventure, 1951. Pg. 148). Lou had been planning to take Herbert Jr., now 10, and Allan, 7 years old back to California so that they could attend school and she could begin work on the Hoover dream house. The Hoovers had decided to build a house to their specifications on San Juan Hill, adjacent to the Stanford campus. Lou and Bert remembered enjoyable walks to this hill during their times at Stanford.

But war broke out in Europe. Thousands of Americans poured into London, desperate to find a way back to the U.S. Their paper money, letters of credit, and even their reservations on steamships were not being honored because of the war. It was at this time that Lou and Herbert's organizational and humanitarian qualities began to shine.

While Herbert Hoover was helping with finances and transportation for stranded Americans, Lou Hoover began to work for the relief of American women and children stranded in London. She mobilized the Society of American Women in London to provide help. This help was in the form of clothing, lodging, food, and even tours around London in order to take their minds off the problems and delays facing the women. She offered plenty of information and guidance too. Early fall was hectic for the Hoovers.

Lou Hoover took the boys home to California on October 3rd. She wanted to get them into school in Palo Alto. Luckily, their ship did not have any problems with the German submarine torpedo attacks that were plaguing ships in the Atlantic Ocean.

By October 22nd, Herbert Hoover was appointed official Chairman of the Commission for Belgian Relief. Lou became his partner in this venture. She talked to American women about the plight of the Belgians who had no homes, no food, nothing at all, since they had been invaded by Germany. Lou organized a California branch of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, and she raised financing and backing for one of the first food ships to be sent to Belgium from California.

Lou was Herbert's trusted partner at this crucial time. She commuted back and forth between her husband in London and her boys in California during the war years (1915-16). She was also president of the Society of American Women in London which undertook various relief projects. She arranged for the sale of Belgian lace in order to help that industry survive during the war years.

When America entered World War I, Herbert Hoover was asked by President Woodrow Wilson to become America's Food Administrator. The Hoovers settled in Washington, D.C. Lou worked to enlist women in America into the food conservation program. Wheatless and meatless days were arranged, and "Food Will Win the War," became the national slogan.

Girl Scouts

It was at this time that Lou Hoover took an active interest in the Girl Scout movement. She was asked to be a troop leader for a Washington, D.C. scout troop. Lou's love of young people and her interest in the scouting movement led her to take over Troop VIII. One project that Lou had the scouts do was to cultivate a war garden. The girls were actively directed by Lou to plant plots of vegetables.

Lou devoted many hours and much energy to the Girl Scouts. She was a strong advocate for girls being able to experience a love of the outdoors. She accompanied the girls on hikes, visited camps, and took part in many Girl Scout ceremonies. She was not only a troop leader, but also she became a member of the Girl Scout Council in Washington. The Girl Scout leadership roles interested Mrs. Hoover because they offered her an opportunity to lead young American girls into the great outdoors.

After the Armistice was signed and World War I was over, Lou turned her attention to the building project that had been put on hold at the beginning of the war, their dream house in California. She made preliminary architectural drawings for the house. She liked fireplaces, and each main room had one. Of course there was a fireplace outside for toasting marshmallows and wieners!

During the Presidency of Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover was appointed Secretary of Commerce. It was back to Washington, D.C. for the Hoovers. As the wife of a cabinet officer, Lou spent a substantial amount of time entertaining. She was a warm, gracious hostess. These duties did not interfere with her work for the Girl Scouts. She served every branch of Girl Scouting from troop leader, to president of the national organization, to national board member. She was a successful fund raiser, and during her tenure she dramatically increased participation in Girl Scouting. Lou Hoover particularly liked the service aspects of Girl Scouting as well as the cooperative ventures and the outdoor activities that were available to girls through scouting. She believed that scouting made the girls better homemakers, citizens, and friends, and that it encouraged keener minds and stronger characters.

"To me the outing part of scouting has always been the most important. The happiest part of my own very happy childhood and girlhood was without doubt the hours and days, the sometimes entire months, which I spent in pseudo-pioneering or scouting in our wonderful western mountains with my father in our vacation times. So I cannot but want every girl to have the same widening, simplifying, joy-getting influences in her own life." ( LHH Speech, Girl Scouts in Articles, Addresses, and Statements, LHH Subject File).

National Amateur Athletic Federation

Lou Hoover also was a strong advocate of physical fitness for girls and women, and she had a great interest in their health and welfare. So it was natural for her to become involved in the women's division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation.

In the 1920's men's and women's amateur sports were expanding rapidly due to the press and radio coverage of sporting events. A trend was established toward spectator sports and professional athletes. One controversy which arose concerned participation and competition in women's sports. Many physical educators, physicians, and sports enthusiasts favored participation of women by the model of," A sport for every girl, and every girl in a sport." A division arose between those who advocated mass participation in sports and those who preferred elite varsity sports. There was also opposition to the participation of girls and women in International Olympic Games. The concerns led to the establishment of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. The federation became the forum for discussions about sports on a national level.

Lou Hoover was named a vice president of the NAAF with a challenge to organize a women's division. She was aware of the issues facing women in athletics. There were philosophic differences over competition vs. participation, issues of facilities and space for women, and a lack of qualified women's coaches. Lou used her organizational skill to arrange a conference in Washington, D.C. in April of 1923. The conference developed a model of athletics for girls and women based on, "egalitarian principles, and healthful sports activity." (Joan Hult, LHH, Champion for Girls and Women's Recreational Sports, March 11, 1989).

Lou Hoover contributed generously of her time and finances to the NAAF. She also aided the Federation in its fund raising efforts. However, they were unable to secure long term funding from major foundations. Mrs. Hoover attributed this problem to the lackluster men's division which collapsed in 1924 when Elwood Brown, its leader, died.

The Women's Division managed some growth and it established a policy for girls and women that stated a belief in the: "promotion of competition that stresses enjoyment of sport and the development of good sportsmanship and character rather than those types that emphasize the making and breaking of records, and the winning of championships for the enjoyment of spectators and for the athletic reputation or commercial advantages of institutions and organizations." (NAAF Policy Statement in LHH Subject Files, NAAF). This policy remained unchanged until 1940 when the women's division merged with the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation.

First Lady

Lou Hoover entered the White House as First Lady on March 4, 1929. Once again Lou Hoover was faced with the task of making a comfortable home for her family. She decided to restore the Lincoln Study to an office from its present status as a bedroom. She refurbished and restored the study with as much original furniture as she could locate. Many of the White House restoration projects were done at her own expense. She did her utmost to make the White House more comfortable. Not only did she buy more comfortable furniture, but she also made her guests feel at home too. Lou Hoover had a knack for mixing all sorts of people and making each feel important. She eliminated barriers between special and ordinary guests. A Girl Scout would receive as much attention from Mrs. Hoover as would an ambassador.

A typical day for Mrs. Hoover at the White House might include breakfast with the family, followed by work on answering the mail or writing a speech. Lunch would usually provide an opportunity to entertain guests, and there would be an afternoon tea to which guests would also be invited. Some afternoons Mrs. Hoover might be scheduled to visit a hospital or attend some official ceremonies at sites throughout Washington, D.C. Dinner was also an occasion to entertain, and Mrs. Hoover carefully planned functions from the selection of the foods to be served to the correct protocol for seating. Her days were as fully scheduled as the President's.

Occasionally Mrs. Hoover sought relief from social functions by a horseback ride through Rock Creek Park, some work in the gardens around the White House, or a walk with one of the dogs. She continued to drive her own car around Washington, and occasionally she would take a picnic lunch.

Lou Hoover was constantly in the public eye, but she tried to maintain her own informal ways. She did not give too many speeches, and she did not grant interviews. Lou Hoover was hurt by the press when she was condemned by some papers for having invited Mrs. Oscar DePriest for tea. Mrs. DePriest was the wife of a black congressman from Chicago. The incident caused a great commotion in Washington and the nation. She was praised by some and condemned by others for the invitation extended to Mrs. De Priest. The incident made Mrs. Hoover more wary of the press.

Throughout her life, Lou Hoover always enjoyed getting away, and doing something outdoors. The White House years proved to be no exception. Lou Hoover located and oversaw the building of a retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains for President Hoover. Camp Rapidan became a place for informal entertaining and relaxing. The camp consisted of a series of cabins and walking paths by the headwaters of the Rapidan River.

Once when Lou was recovering from a back injury by relaxing at Camp Rapidan, she discovered that there was no school in the mountains for the children who lived there. She and Herbert decided to build The President's Community School and to hire a teacher for the school. This was done at the Hoover's own expense. They also built a small apartment for the teacher's use. Upon leaving office, the Hoovers donated Camp Rapidan to the government.

Life After the White House

The Hoovers left Washington, D.C. in 1933. Lou was looking forward to time in California. She appreciated the informality of living in Palo Alto where she would have time for books, family, and fishing trips. Lou Hoover still kept up her work with the Girl Scouts, and she opened her home to Stanford University functions such as the Stanford Mother's Club Chrysanthemum Tea.

Mrs. Hoover lent her managerial skills to the Friends of Music at Stanford. The aims of the organization were to encourage and support concerts, lectures, and musical instruction. It was hoped that the Friends of Music would provide funds toward a music library and eventually scholarships for the students.

Lou Hoover transplanted her home one more time. The Hoovers moved to the Towers at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, so that Herbert Hoover could work on relief efforts once again. This time it was the Finnish Relief Fund which was necessary because of the outbreak of World War II. As usual, Lou Hoover assisted with the relief work. She was also elected chairman of the Western Women's Committee which assisted the Salvation Army in its campaign to gather clothing for the millions of war refugees in Europe.

After attending a concert with friends on January 7, 1944, Lou Hoover retired to her bedroom for a brief nap. About 7:00, she was struck by an acute heart attack from which she didn't recover. Lou Hoover was 69 years old when she died.

Lou Henry Hoover was an independent spirit who received from her family a love of nature and adventure, a sense of self reliance, and the ability to value courage. She received from her education a scientific, analytical mind, and good mental discipline. She received from her husband, Herbert, a partnership characterized by respect and mutual understanding. She received from her children and grandchildren love and admiration. Lou Henry Hoover gave to the world a caring, selfless woman. She gave to thousands of Girl Scouts, guidance and sustained work for many years. She gave to the United States exemplary public service.

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