Theodore and Herbert Hoover’s Childhood Recollections: A Comparative Study

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Theodore, Mary and Herbert Hoover ca. 1888
Theodore, Mary and Herbert Hoover ca. 1888

The first volume of Herbert Hoover’s Memoirs appeared in 1951.  Only ten pages comprise his time in Iowa.  Theodore Hoover, Herbert’s older brother, wrote a 1939 autobiography, Memoranda: Being a Statement by an Engineer, that was never published.  It exists in typescript at the Hoover Institution with a copy at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.  The treatment of certain events is strangely similar begging the question if the younger brother didn’t appropriate some of his childhood stories from his older brother.

The problem of Herbert Hoover’s birthday was examined in a previous blog, The Value of Knowing One’s Birthday.  Hoover used the dates of August 10 and August 11 interchangeably until he accessed a family Bible recording his birth on August 10, 1874.  Surprisingly, Theodore recalled:

“…I was born at midnight, January 27-28th, 1871; so there has always been a dispute about my birthday; there was too much excitement for anyone to affirm positively.  My grandmother Minthorn held one day, and my mother another, and there were about equal numbers to support each.”

It could be that both brothers were born late at night close to midnight allowing for the confusion on the actual day of birth.  But the likelihood of it happening seems curious.

Herbert also recalled an incident in his father’s blacksmith shop: “My recollection of my father is of necessity dim indeed.  I retain one vivid memento from his time.  Playing barefoot around the blacksmith shop, I stepped on a chip of hot iron and carry the brand of Iowa on my foot to this day.”  His brother Theodore provides a more dramatic description: “Among the other early experiences was the knowledge acquired concerning the quality of hot iron, in the barefoot season, by means of an inch wide brown scar across the bottom of my foot which hurt and smelled abominably.  The remedy applied was close at hand, for father took me in his arms and for a minute held the injured foot close to the fire in the forge, and then bound it up with a generous application of linseed oil from the carpenter’s shop adjoining.”

The final example is reminiscent of the Citizen Kane “Rosebud” moment.  Theodore recalled:

“For my fourth birthday father made me a wonderful sled, and wisely, to make the gift more appreciated, allowed me to watch the process of its manufacture.  He fashioned the runners of steel and devoted much care to the making and ornamentation thereof; the wagon-maker made the top, and painted red with green stripes, and my father’s love name for me, “Taddie,” painted across the front in large letters.  Though highly appreciated at the time, this sled caused me disappointment a few years later, because of an actual or imagined deficiency in coasting speed, and I put it aside in favor of a proper purchased coaster as soon as I could save up the necessary funds.  What would I not given now to have that red sled, the handiwork of my father!”  Herbert provided a brief statement on sledding down Cook’s Hill: “That was a great long hill where on winters’ nights, to satisfy our human craving for speed, we slid down at terrific pace with our tummies tight to home-made sleds.”  Clearly, Herbert got the hand-me-down home-made sled from Theodore who purchased a sled from a local merchant.

The similarities of such unique events occurring in each brother’s lives is not beyond probability but also worth taking note. Theodore’s memoirs are written with a greater clarity of childhood joy and description.  It is almost certain Herbert Hoover would have read his brother’s manuscript before writing his own.  Memory has a way of taking things you have read and making them part of your own experience.  That is why memory is an unreliable source by itself and needs outside verification.

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