Lou Henry Hoover served as First Lady from 1929 to 1933 as the wife of the 31st President, Herbert Hoover. An avid Chinese linguist and geology scholar, she was also the first First Lady to make regular nationwide radio broadcasts.
Admirably equipped to preside at the White House, Lou Henry Hoover brought to it long experience as wife of a man eminent in public affairs at home and abroad. She had shared his interests since they met in a geology lab at Leland Stanford University. She was a freshman, he a senior, and he was fascinated, as he declared later, “by her whimsical mind, her blue eyes and a broad grinnish smile.”
Born in Iowa, in 1874, she grew up there for ten years. Then her father, Charles D. Henry, decided that the climate of southern California would favor the health of his wife, Florence. He took his daughter on camping trips in the hills–her greatest pleasures in her early teens. Lou became a fine horsewoman; she hunted, and preserved specimens with the skill of a taxidermist; she developed an enthusiasm for rocks, minerals, and mining. She entered Stanford in 1894–“slim and supple as a reed,” a classmate recalled, with a “wealth of brown hair”–and completed her course before marrying Herbert Hoover in 1899.
The newlyweds left at once for China, where he won quick recognition as a mining engineer. His career took them about the globe–Ceylon, Burma, Siberia, Australia, Egypt, Japan, Europe–while her talent for homemaking eased their time in a dozen foreign lands. Two sons, Herbert and Allan, were born during this adventurous life, which made their father a youthful millionaire.
During World War I, while Hoover earned world fame administering emergency relief programs, she was often with him but spent some time with the boys in California. In 1919 she saw construction begin for a long-planned home in Palo Alto. In 1921, however, his appointment as Secretary of Commerce took the family to Washington. There she spent eight years busy with the social duties of a Cabinet wife and an active participation in the Girl Scout movement, including service as its president.
The Hoovers moved into the White House in 1929, and the First Lady welcomed visitors with poise and dignity throughout the administration. However, when the first day of 1933 dawned, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover were away on holiday. Their absence ended the New Year’s Day tradition of the public being greeted personally by the President at a reception in the Executive Mansion.
Mrs. Hoover paid with her own money the cost of reproducing furniture owned by Monroe for a period sitting room in the White House. She also restored Lincoln’s study for her husband’s use. She dressed handsomely; she “never fitted more perfectly into the White House picture than in her formal evening gown,” remarked one secretary. The Hoovers entertained elegantly, using their own private funds for social events while the country suffered worsening economic depression.
In 1933 they retired to Palo Alto, but maintained an apartment in New York. Mr. Hoover learned the full lavishness of his wife’s charities only after her death there on January 7, 1944; she had helped the education, he said, “of a multitude of boys and girls.” In retrospect he stated her ideal for the position she had held: “a symbol of everything wholesome in American life.”
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Lou Henry Hoover’s spouse, Herbert Hoover.