And the War Came:  Lou Hoover and the Great War

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Lou Henry Hoover with the American Relief Committee, ca. 1914.
Lou Henry Hoover with the American Relief Committee, ca. 1914.

Lou Hoover was a prodigious letter writer.  Her correspondence provides great insight into both the life of her husband as well as her own activities.  Lou presents a graphic description of their efforts to assist stranded Americans in London at the beginning of World War I in a letter written to her parents on August 22, 1914:

“Since August fifth we have been working.  Got back from the country the night of the 3rd.  We celebrated Herbert’s birthday the 4th at home.  About 2:30 Bert telephoned to ask me for 100 pounds in money which I happened to have in the house, and said if I wanted to see an interesting sight to come down.  Early in the day a few people whom Bert knew had turned up at his office for money.  And later the consul, quite a new man, had telephoned to ask Bert’s advice and assistance because of the hundreds arriving there.  So Bert took what money he could gather up about the office and my hundred pounds and some he could get from his friends and went over to the consulate and began lending out money (of course without interest) in small amounts to American tourists to live on a few days.  He took care of over 300 that day.

The shops were open but would take only cash and small checks of their own customers.  The banks were all shut and most of the large and influential places were too.

No one would take continental paper money, which most of them had, nor letter of credit nor continental nor American bank checks or drafts, nor American Express and similar check nor even American paper money!  Of course any kind of gold was taken at its weight.  But there wasn’t much of that.  Most of the shops refused to take even English paper money if they had to make change in return!  And of course there were all sorts of rumors as to boats being taken off and no possibility of getting home and nearly everybody was rather panicky.  A tourist committee of some bankers and other active men had been formed the day before to see about getting transports from home, or doing something else to get themselves (and as many others as possible) home.  They had met at the Savoy—a big hotel we knew very well.  And Bert had been in to see them, and said there were lots of ladies arriving there for aid and sympathy.

So I went down to the hotel before ten o’clock, saw the perfect pandemonium there, called half a dozen women I knew would keep their heads and could work, and offered to look after the women and children who had no men with them.  They made me the woman member of the big men’s committee and since then I have worked day and night, and certainly left the boys to Amy!  But none of us could think of just the right other person to do it instead of me.  We made all sorts of arrangements whereby people could get money on their credits.

Bert established a wonderful telegraphic money order system that started work immediately and produced the money in 24 to 48 hours—although the regular telegraph systems have not yet caught up with their work.  When there was no other way of getting money we lent it to them.  We got them boarding places, clothes (lots of them had lost even their suitcases), found their relatives for them and made arrangements for shipping them home when the boats began to move again.

Nearly 40,000 of them have been sent home in the three weeks and it is estimated there are between 10,000 and 20,000 still here with a few hundred arriving from the continent every day.  Well, altogether it has made a lot more work than it sounds in this letter.

We have not even thought when we should start home.  Of course both the boats we had passage on have been taken off.”

Before it was all over, the Hoovers distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars on nothing more than a handshake and promise to repay.  Their trust was not misplaced with all but a few hundred dollars repaid.  Besides providing relief, she also set up tours of London for the stranded Americans introducing them to British history and culture.  Lou and her two sons eventually made it home on the Lusitania leaving on October 3.  Business matters kept Bert in London but he planned reuniting with his family as soon as possible.  These plans were dramatically changed when Millard Shaler called up Hoover requesting his help in getting food to German occupied Belgium.  This resulted in the creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium.  Helping stranded Americans became a prelude to a greater humanitarian effort benefiting millions engaging the talents of Lou and Bert Hoover.

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