I’ve been working at the Herbert Hoover Library for more than twenty years. I’ve given hundreds of museum tours to groups. A featured aspect of our exhibits are Belgian flour sacks given to the Hoovers as gifts of thanks for leading food relief during World War I. We have 366 such sacks, with four or five on display at any one time. I always highlight them on my tours. The sacks are artful and interesting, almost always sparking comment by the tour group.
A little later in the tour, I point out the blueprints of the Lou Henry Hoover house in Palo Alto. Overlooking the Stanford campus, this house was designed to Lou Henry Hoover’s exacting specifications. She planned this house to be not only the family home, but also a place to host guests. Mrs. Hoover’s dream home was completed in June 1920. With over 20,000 square feet of living space, it included the expected living room, dining room, nine bedrooms, a library and two sitting rooms and servants’ quarters. It also had a Belgian alcove. On my tours, I’d describe this area, just off the living room, as an area to display the flour sacks from Belgium.
Last week, when discussing this with a researcher working on the Belgian flour sacks, she explained that it was not likely that the Hoovers would display the sacks. She said that the sacks were commonplace items created by Belgian women and schoolgirls, made to be sold as souvenirs to raise funds for food relief. She acknowledged that a few of the flour sacks were embroidered or painted with such skill that they were high art, but the vast majority, while well-crafted, were the work of artisans. I was abashed. I had been misleading the public for years, assuming artifacts deemed ‘exhibit worthy’ in 2020 would have been held in similar high esteem in the 1920s.
Working on a reference question later in the week, I came across a three-page letter from Lou Henry
Hoover to Belgian architect Victor Horta describing the Belgian alcove in considerable detail. She explained that the room had 250 square feet of floor space with paneled walls and a high ceiling. Lou desired to exhibit as many pieces of ‘the most beautiful Belgian lace’ as possible without putting the fragile artifacts at risk of being damaged. She went on to describe specific photographs, engravings, a ‘wonderful painting of a peasant girl by Baer,’ a bronze medallion done by de Vries, testimonials, books and brass—all of which reminded her of sturdy Belgium. Almost as an afterthought, Lou suggested that thin panels might be used to hang ‘a selection of the quaint embroidered flour sacks presented by the Belgian girls.’
Clearly the flour sacks were not foremost in Lou Henry Hoover’s mind as she planned the Belgian alcove. In the future, my tours would be better informed. It is what you learn after you know it all that matters.