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History Crush: Lou Henry Hoover

Lou Henry posing on a burro at Acton, California, 8/22/1891 (Hoover Presidential Library, 1891-5)

It’s the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts, and thousands of girls and young women have descended on Washington, DC, for the Girl Scout Rock the Mall event this weekend. It seems like the perfect time confess my own history crush, a woman who was very involved in the Girl Scouts: Lou Henry Hoover.

Actually, I am not the only person here at the National Archives with a history crush on Lou Henry Hoover. Mention this First Lady’s name at a meeting, and female staff members are practically swooning. Here at the National Archives, Lou Henry Hoover is cool.

What inspires such awe?

Lou Henry Hoover was a scientist, polyglot, author, Girl Scout supporter, and world traveler. She mixed  smarts, practicality, and adventure. Apparently Herbert Hoover was charmed “by her whimsical mind, her blue eyes and a broad grinnish smile.”

I actually knew little about her until I started working here and saw a photograph of her in the lab at Stanford University. My coworker was delighted to tell me about Lou, the first woman in Stanford’s geology department.

Rocks may not seem like the setting for romance, but the geology department is where Herbert Hoover met Lou Henry—he was a senior and she was a freshman at the still-new Stanford University. When Hoover finished his degree and went off to Australia to work as an engineer, Lou stayed behind and continued her studies. As soon as she finished in 1898, Hoover proposed by cable and she accepted. They were married in 1899 in California, and the very next day they sailed for China, where Hoover was Director General of the Department of Mines of the Chinese Government.

Lou Henry at Standford University.

While they lived in China, Lou went off with her husband on his business trips—into the wilderness. She was already a capable outdoorswomen. Growing up in Iowa, she had gone fishing and camping with her father. She even developed taxidermy skills—that gun she’s holding in the picture at the top is not for show. Lou could shoot it and stuff what she shot. I imagine Lou was ready for China’s wild places, but China may not have been ready for Lou!

She also learned Chinese and was able to speak and write the language. Hoover wrote that “the English-speaking Chinese in town always address her in Chinese and me in English.” She also witnessed the Boxer Rebellion firsthand, and was far more excited than frightened.

“You missed one of the opportunities of your life by not coming to China in the summer of 1900,” she wrote to college friend Evelyn Wight Allen before going on to describe the events of the rebellion. It was not the response you would expect from a young American woman after being trapped with 800 European and American citizens in a 45-day siege by 30,000 Boxer fanatics who had surrounded Tientsin.

Lou traveled the world for the next 14 years as Hoover worked in various places, eventually becoming a millionaire. She and Herbert had two sons, and the children went with them. The older boy went around the world twice before his first birthday.

She also kept up her own intellectual pursuits. Her translation with her husband of De Re Metallica, a 1565 manual on mining and metallurgy, from Latin into English remains in print today.

War World I plunged Europe into chaos and sent the Hoovers down a path that would eventually lead to the Presidency. Hoover’s successful work with hunger relief and refugees in Europe attracted attention in Washington. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him as “America’s Food Administrator,” and Hoover instituted meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. In 1921 he was appointed Secretary of Commerce, and the Hoovers moved to Washington. In 1929 they moved into the White House.

Since it was the Depression, Lou and her husband often paid for expenses from their pocket. Many of the White House restoration projects were done at her own expense.

Lou’s involvement with the Girl Scouts began during World War I, when she was asked to be a troop leader for a Washington, DC, scout troop. Of course, one project that the girls worked on was a victory garden!

Lou Henry Hoover speaking from the President's Study in the White House on a special Girl Scouts program. She is with Lois Kuhn (left) and Peggy Starr, who informed her what the organization had done to help the Woman's Division of the President's Emergency Committee, March 23, 1931 (Herbert Hoover Library)

When Hoover joined the cabinet in 1921, Lou became even more active in the Girl Scouts, going from troop leader to president (twice) of the national organization to national board member. Every Girl Scout is presented with a pin at her investiture. Lou received her pin from Girl Scout Founder Juliette Gordon Low in 1917 when she was installed as the Acting Commissioner of the Washington, DC, Girl Scout Council.

So you can see why I have a history crush on Lou! Her intelligence and her dedication to the many things (and people) that she found interesting and cared about make her fascinating person. I’ll leave you with her own words about adventuring:

“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.” (Lou Henry Hoover Speech, “Girl Scouts in Articles, Addresses, and Statements, LHH Subject File, Hoover Library”).

Stop by the National Archives and see Lou Henry Hoover’s investiture pin and a letter from Juliette Gordon Lowe, on loan from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and on display through June.

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Comments

Comment from Tim Duskin
Time June 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm

After reading this post, I can see why Lou Henry Hoover would be someone to have a history crush on. I learned a lot about her from this. It was very informative.