The Value of Knowing Your Birthday

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Herbert Hoover, age 3.
Herbert Hoover, age 3.

Most people have forgotten the days when you were born at home, often married at home, and had your wake and funeral at home.  These significant events were of importance to immediate family members and their church family members.  Records of births, marriages, and deaths were recorded in family Bibles and church records but not by the government.  In Iowa, that changed on July 1, 1880, when the state required counties to publically record births, marriages, and deaths.  Certified copies of these records could be obtained to provide any person who required documentation of these events.  In the case of Herbert Hoover, his birthday remained a source of mystery until 1924.

Part of the confusion was that his birth occurred late at night around or after midnight on August 10 or 11, 1874.  No one paid attention to the clock noting the exact time of birth.  The death of his father when Hoover was six followed by the death of his mother when Hoover was nine further removed people who could provide insight into the matter.  George H. Nash, Hoover’s preeminent biographer, noted that two sources support an August 11th date: the General Register of the Members of the Springdale Monthly Meeting of Friends, and a memoranda written by Hoover’s older brother Theodore.  Herbert Hoover went back and forth on his birthday, providing Stanford University the August 10th date but writing in an undated autobiographical statement the August 11th date.  It is often suggested that at some point Hoover settled on August 10, largely because of his public prominence and the need for consistency.   But tucked away in his papers as Secretary of Commerce is a folder that helps solve the mystery.

John A. Agnew, a solicitor representing Hoover in an endowment insurance settlement, wrote to Edgar Rickard who represented Hoover in the United States.  Agnew indicated the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society was willing to pay Hoover a sum of £2,295 [$169,040.52 in 2016 dollars] but needed a copy of his birth certificate or “something relating to Mr. Hoover’s age such as a baptismal certificate, a certified copy from a Family Bible or a birthday book, in order that they may admit the age therefrom.”  Rickard wrote to Hoover, indicating “that an affidavit of a relative of an older generation would be accepted, but that it is unlikely that Theodore’s or your sister’s affidavit would serve the purpose.  It is not unlikely that when you entered at Stanford you filed certificates of some character substantiating your age?”  Hoover began writing to relatives seeking their assistance in locating a family Bible or church record that could provide the required documentation.  As luck would have it, Hoover was able to learn that his uncle, Dr. John Henry Minthorn had his mother and father’s family Bible.  He was able to have it shipped to New York City, where Edgar Rickard photographed the entry showing that “Herbert Clark Hoover” was recorded as being born on “Aug. 10, 1874.”  This was attached to a notarized legal affidavit attesting to the provenance of the document’s source.  At last, Hoover had the best evidence to his date of birth that provided the money with which to celebrate in a fine fashion.

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