Some American presidents have their faces on currency, some get memorialized in films and miniseries and sketches. Then there are the others whose all-but-forgotten names are unceremoniously attached to middle schools and parks across the country. Here are a few things worth knowing about the 31st president, Herbert Hoover.
1. HE WAS ORPHANED AT AGE 9.
Hoover’s father, a Quaker named Jesse Clark Hoover, worked as a blacksmith and farm equipment salesman in West Branch, Iowa until he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1880, when Herbert was 6. After his mother, Hulda Minthorn Hoover, died a little over three years later from typhoid and pneumonia, Herbert, his older brother Theodore, and younger sister Mary lived with various relatives until Herbert was sent to live with an uncle, Dr. Henry John Minthorn, in Oregon.
Hoover left school at 15 and worked as an office helper for Minthorn’s Oregon Land Company, and, in the evenings, attended classes at the Capital Business College. Later, determined to attend the newly established Leland Stanford Junior University in California and become an engineer, Hoover took the school’s entrance exam and failed, but because a professor noted he had promise, Hoover was conditionally accepted and became a student in the inaugural 1891 class.
2. HE MADE A FORTUNE IN MINING.
After majoring in geology at Stanford and graduating in 1895, Hoover struggled to find a job as a surveyor and went to work pushing ore carts at a gold mine near Nevada City, California. In 1897, Hoover moved to Australia to work as a mining engineer, then went to China two years later, marrying his wife, Lou Henry, the day before they departed for China.
Between 1901 and 1914, Hoover and his family traveled and worked around the world on four continents and in more than 40 countries. He became a partner with London-based mining company Bewick, Moreing & Co., director of the Chinese Engineering and Mining Corporation (CEMC), and founder of the Zinc Corporation before becoming an independent mining consultant and amassing a personal fortune of $4 million (about $95 million in today’s money) by 1914.
3. THE HOOVERS GOT CAUGHT IN THE BOXER REBELLION.
At a time of intense unrest and international tensions, the Hoovers lived in Tientsin (or Tianjin), in northern China, while he worked as an engineer and executive with the CEMC. Droughts, floods, distrust of missionaries and foreigners, and government reforms led to political uprisings that ensnared the newlywed Hoovers. Their house was struck by shelling in June 1900, and the walled compound they stayed in with other foreigners was besieged for more than three weeks by attacks.
Hoover, with his engineering acumen, helped direct the building of barricades along the compound walls, while Lou tended to the wounded and delivered milk to a makeshift hospital on her bicycle, which once had its tire punctured by a bullet. But she seemed unfazed by the conflict and wrote to a friend, “You should have been there … at the most interesting siege and bombardment of the age. You missed one of the opportunities of your life by not coming to China in the summer of 1900.”
4. HE BECAME KNOWN AS "THE GREAT HUMANITARIAN" DURING WORLD WAR I.
The Hoovers lived in London at the outset of World War I, and Hoover later commented that the outbreak of war in Europe changed his life: “I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914, my engineering career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public life.” He arranged, in six weeks, for the evacuation of 120,000 Americans trapped in war-torn Europe, and he later became Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which raised millions of dollars and provided food, medicine and supplies for more than 9 million Belgian and French citizens after Germany invaded.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to run the U.S. Food Administration to help conserve American resources needed for the war effort. The term Hooverize, a phrase used by Americans to connote rationing consumer goods, made him a household name. Wilson named Hoover the head of the American Relief Administration after the conclusion of the war in 1918 and he helped send 34 million tons of food, clothing, and supplies to Europe. He also extended aid to famine-stricken Russia in 1921, and rebuked a critic of this aid, saying, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they must be fed!”
5. HE PARTICIPATED IN THE FIRST LONG-DISTANCE TELEVISION BROADCAST.
Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 to 1928, making him the last President to have held a full cabinet position. In this role he became a popular and visible member of the government, which opened up a historic opportunity for him. On April 7, 1927, Hoover gave a speech from Washington, D.C. He looked into a small black box and spoke into a telephone receiver for an experiment conducted by Bell Laboratories. This moving image was beamed more than 200 miles away to Whippany, New Jersey and then on to the AT&T offices in Manhattan, making Hoover the first person to appear on a long-distance TV broadcast.
A New York Times story recalled, “It was as if a photograph had come to life and begun to talk, smile, nod its head and look this way and that.” The broadcast was marred, in hindsight, by the appearance of vaudeville comedian A. Dolan, who first gave a performance as a stereotype of an Irish-American, made a quick costume change, and then returned in blackface. Hoover, however, commented on the scientific significance of the event, telling reporters, “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance.”
6. THE PRESIDENCY WAS HIS FIRST ELECTED OFFICE.
Hoover made an abbreviated run at the presidency in 1920, but he never explicitly agreed to or participated in the brief campaign. The mostly nonpartisan Hoover entered the race in California largely on the issue of joining the League of Nations, something Hoover was for but fellow Progressive Republican Hiram Johnson was vehemently against. After Johnson won the California primary, Hoover left the race. Hoover was appointed Secretary of Commerce under Harding and after seven years gave the White House another shot. His national popularity had peaked after he took charge of relief efforts following flooding along the Mississippi River in 1927, and when Coolidge announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, Hoover became the leading Republican candidate—although he had once said “the whole idea” of a political campaign filled him “with complete revulsion.”
Although the party leadership didn’t entirely trust Hoover, he had won enough primaries by the time of the Republican convention in Kansas City in the summer of 1928 to secure the support of multiple constituencies and the important endorsement of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. In the general election he easily defeated New York Governor Alfred E. Smith with 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 87, and 58 percent of the popular vote.
7. HE LOST TO FDR AND BECAME ONE OF HIS BIGGEST CRITICS.
Historians have commented on Hoover’s unfortunate timing and poor policies as president, as he took office just a few months before the stock market crash of 1929. Even the Great Engineer couldn’t figure out a way to turn around the economy. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff bill didn’t work; the Agricultural Marketing Act did nothing; his voluntary, non-governmental approach to economics failed to stimulate consumption and production; and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was unsuccessful in stabilizing the financial sector. Americans rallied around Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal promises, and he knocked out Hoover with 57 percent of the popular vote and a whopping 472-59 electoral vote edge.
Becoming the scapegoat for the Great Depression didn’t sit well with Hoover, and he blasted his successor’s policies and ideology. Hoover also felt Roosevelt jabbed him with personal slights. Hoover’s request for Secret Service protection was denied, and he believed FDR fed negative stories to the press that blocked his fundraising efforts to aid Finland in its fight with Russia.
Many of Hoover’s knocks on Roosevelt have not aged well. His main criticisms concerned the “gospel of dictatorship” surrounding the support of the New Deal. He even compared what was happening in America to events in Europe, namely that “this Administration is steadily developing the same growth of personal power that has swept the world into Nazism and Fascism.”
Hoover didn’t just think about politics, though. He continued his humanitarian work and wrote extensively, including The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, the first biography of one president written by another, and Fishing for Fun–And to Wash Your Soul. He also helped in the restoration efforts in postwar Europe, before passing away in New York at the age of 90 on October 20, 1964.