The Invisible Guest

By Thomas F. Schwartz

During the season of goblins, ghosts, witches, vampires, and zombies, “invisible guests” would find themselves among friends.  But invisibility can be the spiteful kind as in H. G. Welles, Invisible Man or something that is not present but felt.  It is the latter that Herbert Hoover evoked in a series of dinners held in 1920-1921 to raise money for feeding hungry children around the world.

With the armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ending World War I, it was clear to world leaders that a major food relief effort was required in many portions of Europe to prevent large scale famine and disease.  Congress appropriated $100 million and Herbert Hoover was named to head the new American Relief Administration [ARA] that would oversee the purchase and distribution of food relief.  When the Congressional mandate for the ARA expired, Hoover realized that the need for continued food relief had not eased.  Hoover convinced President Wilson to allow him to continue using the name but as a private organization rather than a public, government sanctioned, organization.  Through a series of innovative programs such as purchasing food drafts at local banks that could be exchanged for food by families in areas of need, provided the necessary funds to continue feeding hungry people.

Perhaps the most innovative undertaking was the “Invisible Guest” dinners.  As Hoover described it: “The visible guests entered the room to find rows of rough board tables set with tin dishes.  At the center of the head table, in the place of honor, stood an empty chair with a lighted candle before it, symbolizing the Invisible Guest.  When the company sat down, Red Cross nurses or college girls served them with the same food that we gave as an extra meal to the undernourished children in Europe—but with second helpings.”

Dec. 29, 1920 Invisible guest dinner for the Children’s Relief Fund, , New York City

The most profitable of these dinners occurred at the Hotel Commodore, New York City on December 29, 1920.  The dinner was hosted by Herbert Hoover along with General John J. Pershing, and Franklin K. Lane who fell ill and could not attend.  Guests paid $1000 a plate, dressed formally, and were served a menu consisting of stew, bread, and cocoa costing roughly 22 cents.  According to Hoover’s Memoirs, the ticket total reached $1 million dollars but that was matched with an additional million from an impromptu auction at the dinner and $1 million provided by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.   The invisible guest dinners ended in March, 1921, with receipts along with other fund raising totaling more than $29 million.

The idea of the invisible guest dinner has recently been revived in Krakow, Poland.  A number of events marking the centennial anniversary of Herbert Hoover’s food relief efforts in Poland led to the renewal of hosting invisible guest dinners to raise money to feed hungry children in this nation.

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