Modern Hoover Myths: Part I

Former President Herbert Hoover shaking hands, 1940

Popular histories are meant to provide a broad audience access to history that is not written exclusively for an academic audience. As such, the writing tends to be livelier with numerous anecdotes that are memorable but might lack veracity. Footnotes, that are intended to keep academic writings honest by showing readers where they can find the original source for information in the text, are usually absent in popular history books. Rather than footnotes, a summary of secondary sources might be provided. Readers must trust the author as providing accurate information. Numerous questionable characteristics attributed to Herbert Hoover have made their way into popular portrayals. In a series of blog posts, these attributes will be examined. The first is: “Hoover did not like shaking hands.”

Hand shaking goes back centuries and has a well-established place in business and politics. Hand sanitizers became a necessity at White House receiving lines in recent administrations. The COVID-19 pandemic did not end hand shaking although it was briefly replaced by elbow and fist bumps. Hoover was no glad-hander and took steps to limit the number of delegations who wanted to visit the White House to shake hands with the President. Presidents held an annual ritual on New Year’s Day by inviting the diplomatic corps followed by the public to visit the White House and shake hands with the President. Theodore Roosevelt holds the record for the most hands shaken with 8,510 visitors on New Year’s Day 1907. Hand shaking is not easy. Done improperly results in a sore hand. The political writer Theodore White indicated that John F. Kennedy had to take lessons on how to grip hands when campaigning in 1960 because he suffered from sore hands early in the campaign. Hoover shook hands with nearly 3,000 at a reception for the American Bar Association in October 1932 causing his hand to bleed. The following day, Hoover wore a bandage on his hand. A casting of Abraham Lincoln’s right hand taken by Leonard Wells Volk in May 1860 shortly after receiving the party nomination for president shows a swollen hand. He had greeted so many well-wishers that he cut the top of a broom handle to hold reducing the pain of making a fist for the plaster mold. All these examples underscore the difficulty of shaking hundreds of hands without bruising your own hand in the process.

There is no evidence that Hoover opposed hand shaking either as a businessman or a public official. Numerous photographs and newsreels show him engaged in this age-old custom. He continued the annual tradition of greeting the diplomatic corps and public on New Year’s Day until 1933. Having lost the presidency in the 1932 election, Hoover decided to go fishing in Florida and dispensed with tradition. Franklin Roosevelt and his successors thought it a good idea to let go of the New Year’s Day tradition and limited hand shaking to receiving lines at official White House functions.

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