Lou Hoover’s Critique of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Chicago World's Fair Poster

After leaving the presidency in March 1933, Herbert and Lou Hoover returned to their home in Palo Alto, California.  By nature, they were not homebodies and were always traveling.  Visiting friends in Chicago allowed them to attend the Chicago World’s Fair that used as its theme “A Century of Progress.”  Unlike the 1893 Columbian Exposition that created the “White City” of Beaux-Arts buildings, this fair adopted modernist Art Deco designs that avoided ornamentation and emphasized clean, sharp building outlines.  Lean economic times also forced the creative use of less expensive materials as well as the use of gaseous tube lighting such as neon, krypton, helium, and mercury vapor.  By all accounts, the fair was a success in the midst of growing economic despair.  Nine million visitors spent an estimated four hundred million dollars.  American industrial sponsors invested thirty-two million as exhibitors, found their investment well worth the return.

Sally Rand and her famous feather and bubble dances scandalized “proper” fairgoers but became one of the must-see attractions of the fair.  Long before Jurassic Park, Sinclair Oil Company created a seventy-five foot brontosaurus that moved its head and tail as part of the story on the origins of oil.  General Electric’s House of Magic allowed the public to witness lights without power cords and popcorn created by “microwaves.”  The Sky Ride lifted visitors six hundred and twenty-five feet in the air to view the entire midway and get a clear view of the two-hundred foot high Havoline building styled as an operating thermometer.

Writing to her youngest son, Allan, Lou Hoover expressed her unvarnished opinions of the fair: “My dear, if I had a week to go about this Fair with you at odd times, we would be amused.  As it is, we have been out there three or four times for an hour or two each time—more seen than seeing; and a bit bored.  The architecture is all that it is described—but there seems ample reason for it—parts of it are amusing, parts amazing—most of it dreary, and all singularly reminiscent of Cal[ifornia] Highway architecture as practiced by filling stations and hot dog stands.  At night parts of it are lighted very picturesquely.”

Lou’s comments mirror the Art Deco style used by roadside buildings in the 1930s.  As automobiles and concrete roads such as the Lincoln Highway and Route 66 gave great access to nationwide travel, amenities such as gas stations, cafes, and motels sprouted like topsy to accommodate travelers.  So much of the architecture of the fair was déjà vu for the former First Lady and Californian.



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Women’s Place in the Present Emergency

by Hoover Archivist, Matthew Schaefer
In honor of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover’s birthday, March 29, 1874

#31-1928-f03 First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

#31-1928-f03 First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

At 5:15 in the evening of Sunday, November 27th, 1932, First Lady Lou Hoover gave an address, ‘Women’s Place in the Present Emergency,’ over the NBC national radio network.  The speech was part of a series of weekly radio talks by the National Women’s Committee of the Welfare and Relief Mobilization to address challenges posed by unemployment in the Great Depression.

Hoover started with the obvious.  Winter is coming.  Men have been out of work for months.  Families were facing the wolf at the door.  She bright-sided the situation by noting that there is enough food, enough clothing, and enough fuel for all Americans and that with efficient cooperation all needs would be met.  Lou Hoover exhorted: “We must give generously, individually, so that generous provision must be made by city and town, by county and state.”

The most significant barrier facing the women’s ability to deal with the present emergency was misplaced pride.  Hoover observed: “The last person in town to ask for help will be the self-respecting man or woman, unemployed for the first time in his or her life.’  It was incumbent on women assisting in this emergency to tactfully approach their neighbors and provide the requisite aid.

Lou Henry Hoover did just that, quietly donating $300 to help the unemployed and their families in Palo Alto in January 1933.  According to online inflation calculators, 300 dollars in 1933 would have more than $5000 purchasing power in 2017.  As was her wont, Hoover asked that this charitable enterprise not be publicly acknowledged.

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Herbert Hoover and the Centennial of American Entry into World War I: Episode II

The ship, Antonio Lopez.

The ship, Antonio Lopez.

By: Matthew Schaefer, Hoover Archivist

The meeting of the Iowa World War I Centennial Committee reminded this Hoover archivist that it was time to pen the monthly installment of the Herbert Hoover saga.  When we left, Hoover was struggling to raise funds in America for the Commission for Relief in Belgium.  German submarines were exacting a deadly toll on trans-Atlantic shipping, and President Wilson was nudging America closer to war.

By early March, Hoover was beginning to lose hope that his fund-raising efforts for the CRB would be effective.  The publication of the Zimmerman telegram [with Germany proffering Mexico inducements to attack America should the United States enter the war on the side of the Allies], Americans were quickly becoming less neutral in thought.  Wilson’s advisor Colonel Edward House told Hoover at a March 7th meeting that: ‘the American people are obsessed with our entry into the war and cannot be brought to think of anything else.’

Stymied in the states and worried about the safety and security of Americans still working Belgium for the CRB, Hoover looked for a passenger ship berth to get back to Europe.  Submarine warfare had reduced Atlantic passenger traffic to a trickle.  The only berth available was on the Spanish boat, Antonio Lopez, described by Hoover as a: “jalopy, some 40 years of age, a cross between a full-rigged sailing ship and a steamboat.” Creaky as it was, the Antonio Lopez embarked for Cadiz on March 13, 1917.

Knowing too well the food shortages faced in Europe, Lou Henry Hoover packed eggs, butter, fresh vegetables and meat for Herbert’s trip.  Hoover’s memoirs noted: “When we asked the steward to put them in cold storage, we learned: that there was none, that there was not a steward on the boat who spoke any language but Spanish, and that the supply of beef, mutton and pork was on its four feet in pens on the forward deck.”  In addition to feeding the passengers, the livestock served as an impromptu orchestra–bleating, mooing and snorting on the uneasy seas; they also provided unpleasant olfactory reminders of their presence on board.  Hoover closed this pungent passage of his memoirs by noting: ”By storing our food resources in my cabin, I also learned that we carried a full cargo of rats and cockroaches.”

Neither the world, nor the war stood still while Hoover was in route to Europe.  In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, leaving the more democratic Alexander Kerensky as the head of state, thus removing one potential sticking point for American entry into the fight to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’  On the seas, German U-boats sank several American ships in the mid-Atlantic, making it all but inevitable that America would enter the war.  This was cemented when Wilson’s war cabinet voted unanimously in favor of declaring war on Germany on March 20th.

Once on the ground in Europe, Hoover bent his efforts to closing out American involvement on the ground in Belgium with the CRB.  Sensing American entry into the war was imminent, Hoover wanted to secure the safety of his men and see to the smooth transition of decision-making authority of the CRB to the Dutch and Spanish, who were still neutrals.  This was no easy task, but Hoover managed.

Hoover clearly sensed that American entry into the European war was nearly inevitable.  Before departing on the Antonio Lopez, he gave an interview to his friend Will Irwin for the Saturday Evening Post.  Hoover said: “A war of any size in this country would strain our respected old Constitution until it creaked….  Modern warfare is about one part army, one part navy, two parts economics, one or two parts moral forces, and one part finance.  If we are to have war, with its hatreds, its disturbances, its checks to all good causes—perhaps with its spilling of our strongest blood—we should at least have the compensations.  So far as we can, we should check extravagance in living, dress, travel and amusement, and set the people to saving.  It will be good not only for the conduct of the war but for our souls.”

Time would tell whether American entry into the war would be good for our souls.


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White House Musicales: The Rest of the Story

By Thomas Schwartz

Having previously noted some of the White House musicales presented during the Hoover Administration, one may ask who was in charge of determining the programs and securing the artists. These tasks were the responsibility, not of a White House staff member, but of Henry Junge at Steinway & Sons piano company.

Actually, Mrs. Hoover was not very enthusiastic about continuing the established tradition. She confided to friends that she thought it embarrassing that the artists were not paid, and that a private company was responsible for the arrangements and expenses. The White House entertainment budget, however, was very limited, so Mrs. Hoover was prepared to pay for the musicales out of her own pocket. (Actually, the Hoovers spent over $600, 000 of their own money on various expenses that were not covered by appropriations, and donated Mr. Hoover’s entire salary to charity – but that’s another story.) But the White House personnel begged her not to end the arrangement with Steinway because previous Presidents, and possibly future Presidents as well, could not afford to pay for the musicales out of pocket.

As time passed, however, Mrs. Hoover became dissatisfied with the programs and artists provided by Mr. Junge. Mrs. Hoover preferred American musicians, but Junge often scheduled foreign artists who were visiting the United States. Mrs. Hoover also complained that Junge sometimes had to switch programs at short notice when the originally scheduled artists backed out. Mrs. Hoover attempted, through some friends in New York, to quietly and diplomatically end the relationship with the Steinway & Sons, but the company, and Mr. Junge personally, were so proud of their role and so emotionally invested, that severing the arrangement would have been profoundly embarrassing. So Mrs. Hoover acquiesced, and Mr. Junge continued to arrange the musicales throughout the Hoover Administration.

White House Musicales: Part II

As noted previously, the Hoovers continued the tradition, which began during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, of sponsoring concerts or “musicales” at the White House, usually following important dinners or receptions. The Hoovers’ tastes, and therefore the programming, tended toward classical music. Programs, guest lists, and other documentation for many of these musicales are preserved in the Lou Henry Hoover Papers at the Hoover Library. Unfortunately, as far as we know, none of the programs were recorded or photographed.

The majority of musicales held at the Hoover White House consisted of a vocalist paired with an instrumentalist. On January 23, 1930, a musicale following a judicial reception featured violinist Jascha Heifetz and contralto Margaret Matzenauer. Matzenauer was a Metropolitan Opera star at the twilight of her career; she would retire later that year. Heifetz was a young, internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso entering his prime.

Margaret Matzenauer

Jascha Heifetz










Following a diplomatic dinner on January 8, 1931, a musicale featured pianist Vladimir Horowitz and soprano Claire Dux. Dux was an opera star who sang frequently in Chicago and Europe; at the time of her White House performance she was married to Charles H. Swift of the Swift meatpacking family. Horowitz was a renowned Ukrainian pianist, who like Heifetz, was an ascending young star. Unlike Heifetz, however, who had left Russia before the Communist Revolution, Horowitz had escaped from the Soviet Union in 1925 on the pretense of studying abroad. Both became American citizens, Heifetz in 1925 and Horowitz in 1944.

Vladimir Horowitz

Claire Dux

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Hitching a Ride with a President

By Thomas Schwartz

John Wade Gordon stood along a hot, dusty California highway not far from Petaluma hoping to hitch a ride to Sausalito ferry about forty miles south.  Gordon had relocated to California from Memphis, Tennessee is search of better prospects.  It was August 24, 1933.  Hungry and in need of employment, Gordon hoped his remaining 92 cents would hold out until he could reach a friend in the San Francisco area.  As the sun grew hotter, the cars continued to ignore Gordon’s extended thumb hoping to attract a modern-day Good Samaritan.  As Gordon recalled, “a big shiny car came rolling along and I thought there was no use in flagging that one.  But after it had passed a hundred feet or so it stopped and a chauffeur came back to me and said I might ride.”  Climbing in the front seat next to the driver, Gordon was surprised to be greeted by a voice from the back of the vehicle.  Turing around, he immediately recognized Herbert Hoover.  Returning from Bohemian Grove, Hoover was on his way back to his home in Palo Alto.

Gordon was surprised how friendly and engaging a President could be to a young stranger sporting a heavy Southern accent.  Working as a mechanic to raise the money for the trip, describing his trek to California from Tennessee, and detailing his hopes for a better job in the Golden State, Gordon extolled Hoover with his life story as well as his dreams and aspirations for the future.  Hoover ears perked at the mention of one of Gordon’s relatives, former Governor of Mississippi Earl Brewer as well as Senator Pat Harrison who was a close friend of his mother.  Arriving at the ferry, Hoover suggested that Gordon join him for a bite to eat guessing that the hitch hiker needed a good meal.  Over lunch, Hoover offered some advice about securing employment.  According to Gordon, Hoover’s parting words were: “Well, son, I am going to take a chance on you.  You have an honest face.  I’ll give you a little money for a new outfit.  Get yourself some clothes and put an advertisement in the newspapers.  You say you can drive a car, perhaps you could get work as a driver.”  Hoover offered to write a letter of recommendation to prospective employers, wrote down the address of Gordon’s friend where the letter could be sent, handed Gordon a business card and a hundred dollar bill for a new outfit of clothes and to carry Gordon over until he was employed.

Not reported at the time was the difficulty Gordon had in purchasing a suit of clothing.  Suspicion arose with the salesperson by a young man without means being in possession of a hundred dollar bill.  Gordon explained his story to the police and showed them Hoover’s card.  A quick call to Hoover immediately resolved any questions.

True to his word, Hoover contacted some friends and secured employment for Gordon with the New York Life Insurance Company.  Hoover served on the board of directors for the company.  When Gordon tried to repay his debt to Hoover, the President refused payment.  It took Gordon’s mother to write Hoover a letter of rebuke, chastising him for not allowing her son to be a responsible adult in honoring his debt obligations.  Assuaging Mrs. Gordon’s wrath, Hoover accepted repayment from her son John.  Over the years, John would drop Hoover a short letter providing brief progress reports.  The two continued to correspond over the years in what became a rather warm friendship.  Responding to Gordon on October 29, 1954, Hoover wrote: “Thank you indeed for yours of the 9th which just reaches me here in New York.  That was certainly a well-invested $100—which you paid back both in money and success.”

John Wade Gordon died on March 25, 1961 in Okinawa.  At the time of death, Gordon was the Pacific Division Manager for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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On Centennial Celebrations

By Matthew Schaefer


Note from President Woodrow Wilson during the war regarding feeding people in Belgium.

While driving back from a Des Moines meeting of the Iowa World War I Centennial Committee, it occurred to this Hoover Archivist that a series of monthly posts might be in order to describe the activities of Herbert Hoover as America edged closer to war.  Consider this episode one.

Hoover had spent the first thirty months of the Great War organizing and running the Commission for Relief in Belgium [CRB].  The mission of the CRB was to feed the nine million citizens of Belgium and northern France who faced famine trapped behind the entrenched German army and the British naval blockade.   Hoover ran the CRB as private citizen from a neutral nation, negotiating safe passage of food and relief goods into the war zone.  This was the largest famine relief effort to date and it entailed logistical and diplomatic maneuvering as well as considerable sums of money.

By January 1917, Hoover realized that the CRB’s ongoing needs for money would soon outstrip fundraising efforts.  He returned to the United States to embark on a drive to raise $150 million to sustain the CRB over the next year.  Before Hoover can get underway, events overtake him.  At the beginning of February 1917, Germany declares that it will begin a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, unleashing its U-boats to attack shipping without warning.  Germany hoped that this strategy would so severely disrupt Allied supplies that they would sue for peace.

Hoover recognized the gravity this threat represented to the CRB.  At best supply lines would be stretched, at least CRB ships may be sunk and food lost, at worst America might enter the war and all Hoover’s agreements regarding the CRB’s special status would be voided.  Hoover stayed the course, giving a series of public talks to raise funds, knowing that the issue might be rendered moot.

Never at ease as a public speaker, Hoover pushed on: speaking to the New York Chamber of Commerce in early February, addressing the Committee on National Defense on Lincoln’s birthday, holding forth to the National Geographic Society on February 17th, speaking to his colleagues at the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, and culminating in an address to the New York State Legislature on February 28th.

The February 28, 1917 address is item # 1 in the compilation of articles, addresses and speeches that Hoover’s staff affectionately referred to as the ‘Bible.’  This speech, echoing those earlier in the month, called on Americans to ‘preserve rigid neutrality’ and to step up contributions to the CRB.  Hoover pointed out that American contributions [per capita] lagged behind all Allied nations, with Canada contributing twice as much!  Hoover asked his audience to imagine themselves in Belgium–movement restricted by the occupying German army, no contact with the outside world, factories closed, and limited food.  To drive this last point home, Hoover had arranged to make his presentation while serving the legislators a Belgian lunch of soup, bread and one slice of bacon, a baseline of subsistence costing 7 cents per citizen per day.

Hoover throws down the gauntlet: ‘There are millions of helpless people whom America, and America alone, could save.  Not only was this our duty, it was our privilege.  It was our privilege to forfend infinite suffering for these millions of people, to save millions of lives…  It was our opportunity to demonstrate that great strain of humanity and idealism which saved our Republic.  We could throw a gleam of sunshine into the sweltering dungeon in which Europe has been plunged.’

How did American respond to this unequivocal challenge?  Will Hoover succeed in raising enough funds to feed an entire country for a year?  Will German U-boats thwart these ambitions?  Will Woodrow Wilson continue to keep America out of war?  Tune in next month.





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Tempest in a Teapot – Lou Henry Hoover and the DePriest Tea Incident

By: Spencer Howard


Jessie DePriest.  Image courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

When Lou Henry Hoover became First Lady in 1929, one of her main responsibilities was to coordinate the social functions at the White House, and the first major event on her agenda was to invite the wives of the members of Congress to the White House for tea.  The Congressional teas served as an opportunity to introduce the wives of newly elected Congressmen to Washington society.  The guest list actually ran to over 600 ladies, not just wives but also daughters, nieces, granddaughters and sisters of members of Congress – any woman or young lady who derived her social status from her connection to a member of Congress.  Such a large number necessitated a coordinated series of teas rather than one large event.

Mrs. Hoover faced an unusually delicate situation – for the first time in 30 years, an African-American had been elected to Congress, and both political and social Washington were abuzz with the implications.

Oscar Stanton DePriest was the son of former slaves, born in 1871 in Florence, Alabama.  He settled in 1889 in Chicago’s Second Ward, a predominantly African American community, and became a successful businessman.  In 1914, he was the first African American to be elected to the Chicago City Council.  When Rep. Martin Madden, who represented Chicago’s South Side, died unexpectedly in April 1928, DePriest was chosen by the local Republican committee to replace Madden on the November ballot.  DePriest won the five-way contest with 48% of the vote.

When the new Congress convened in April 1929, Southerners sought to prevent DePriest from being seated by blocking the swearing-in of the entire Illinois delegation.  Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth decided to swear in the entire House as one body – swearing in all members at one time, he explained, would preserve the decorum of the ceremony.  Of course the hostility did not end once DePriest had been seated.  North Carolina Democrat George Pritchard refused to occupy an office next to DePriest, and other Southerners declined to serve on any committee with DePriest.

Mrs. Hoover and her social secretary, Mary Randolph, were fully aware of the situation and approached the Congressional teas with caution, but there was no doubt that Mrs. Jessie DePriest would be included.  They arranged five teas.  The first, on May 27, 1929, hosted the wives of the ranking members.  The next three divided the remainder of the list alphabetically, with a few individuals out of sequence when they were not available for their assigned date:  A-H on May 29, H-O on June 4, and O-Z on June 6.  Jessie DePriest did not receive and invitation for May 29.  Instead, she was quietly invited to a fifth tea, on June 12.

The June 12 tea was a small affair, just fourteen guests — the wives of some of President Hoover’s cabinet members; the wives of three members of Congress from New York, Pennsylvania, and California; Mrs. Hoover’s sister, Mrs. Jean Henry Large; and Mrs. Hoover’s personal secretary, Ruth Fesler.  At least two of the women had already attended one of the earlier teas.  One man attended with his wife — James C. Dunn, who was the Chief of Protocol for the State Department.

When word got out, the tea became national news and a scandal in the South.  Mrs. DePriest’s attendance as an invited guest at a White House social function accorded her social legitimacy, and by implication, equal standing with the white guests.

The President’s staff immediately sought to limit the political damage.  Hoover’s press secretary insisted that Mrs. Hoover’s teas were actually official events, not social ones.  Rep. DePriest, however, used the opportunity to make a statement about black equality.  He told the press he was “immensely gratified” that his wife had received social recognition from the White House.  “My wife enjoyed the experience and the social contacts very much,” he said.  “She was treated excellently and there was no indication of a desire to discriminate in her case.  Naturally, she is very much pleased with the whole affair.”

Condemnation rolled in from the South.  Editorials from the region ranged from scathing to hysterical.  The Texas legislature voted to formally censure Mrs. Hoover for inviting Mrs. DePriest to the White House.  The legislatures of Georgia, Mississippi and Florida passed similar resolutions.  Northern and Midwestern newspapers wondered what the uproar was all about, and the black press throughout the nation spoke in glowing terms of Mrs. Hoover’s action.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Hoover received hundreds of letters from all over the country commenting on the event.  Most, but not all, from the South expressed anger, disappointment or shame.  Letters from the rest of the country were overwhelmingly positive, even congratulatory.  Over time, the furor faded, but the political repercussions, especially in the South, continued through President Hoover’s failed bid for reelection in 1932.  As for Lou Henry Hoover, the 1929 Congressional teas were the only Congressional teas she hosted for the remainder of her husband’s Presidency.

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Documenting the Hoover Marriage of February 10, 1899

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Unlike Hoover’s birthday that remained a contested issue until 1924, Herbert “Bert” Hoover’s marriage to Lou Henry on February 10, 1899 has never been questioned.  Most of the accounts of the event were recalled years later resulting in conflicting information.  An earlier blog post on February 10, 2016, “The Hoover Wedding Scandal,” provides a clear summary of the problems.  One of the questions in response to that blog post was whether the marriage license was among Hoover’s papers.  It was not.  By shear serendipity, we received a phone call from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno in November, 2016 asking us if we were interested in receiving Herbert and Lou’s marriage license.  The answer was an immediate “YES!”  But the question all of the archivists asked is “how did it get there?”

Herbert Hoover, a Quaker, and Lou Henry, an Episcopalian, intended to have Dr. William Thoburn, a professor at Stanford as well as a Methodist minister, perform the ceremony.  His death, weeks before the wedding, required an alternate plan.  Father Ramon Mestres, an old family friend of the Henrys, was asked if he could preside over the marriage in a civil ceremony.  Arrangements proceeded with the marriage ceremony taking place in the Henry home in Monterey, Father Mestres performing a civil ceremony.  The next day, the couple boarded a ship for China, where Bert’s new job awaited his arrival.  Father Mestres filed the marriage with the Monterey County Recorder.  What is unknown is why the license was never forwarded on to Bert and Lou Hoover?

Marriage license of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover.

Marriage license of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover.

What follows is conjecture based upon sparse evidence.  Father Mestres died in the Monterey area on August 5, 1930.  The Reverend James H. Culleton, an assistant of the Vicar General for the Dioceses, secured many of the papers from the Mestres estate, the Hoover marriage license being among the items.  Perhaps Father Mestres intended to send it to the Hoovers once they got settled in China, or kept it for safety reasons until they returned for a family visit.  Like so many things in life that we intend to do but remain undone with new concerns of each passing day, Mestres may have simply forgotten he had it among his papers.  Reverend Culleton, an avid collector and scholar of local history, placed the Hoover marriage license in one of ten scrapbooks he created, one dealing with Monterey area records.  The scrapbooks were placed in the diocese archives in the 1930s since Reverend Culleton became Chancellor of the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno.  They were rediscovered in 1996.  Because these scrapbooks and the records within them transcended the scope of the diocese archives, there was debate on whether to keep and accession them or find appropriate public archives which would be a more logical fit.  The decision for the latter approach explains why the document now resides with the other papers of Herbert and Lou Hoover in West Branch, Iowa.

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Hoover Field – Washington DC’s First Airport

07/18/1926 Anton Fokker with Herbert Hoover. Washington's air passenger service was launched on this day.

From the left: Anton Fokker, Herbert Hoover, F. Trubee Davison and Edward Warner.]

The inauguration of the first air passenger service between Washington DC and Philadelphia on July 16, 1926 was a major milestone in the development of the nation’s capital, and of unusual personal significance for Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.  Not only was Secretary Hoover, by virtue of the new Air Commerce Act, responsible for fostering air commerce, issuing and air traffic rules, and licensing pilots, but the grassy field that functioned as Washington DC’s first commercial airport was named Hoover Field in his honor.

In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t such a great honor – Hoover Field had a short and troubled life as Washington’s first airport.

In 1925, Thomas Mitten, the head of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, sought to begin daily passenger air service between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in connection with the upcoming celebration of the 150th anniversary of Declaration of Independence.  Finding no functional commercial airfield in the District, Mitten selected the site of a former horse racing track on the south side of the Potomac River, which was just barely large enough for an airfield.  A single sod runway, 2400 feet long, and a single small hangar were constructed in five and a half days.  The only navigational aid was a windsock.

When Mitten’s service was finally inaugurated in July 1926, passengers and mail were carried on a schedule of three trips in each direction daily, using three-engine Fokker monoplanes seating 10 passengers. The flying time was approximately 1 hour 30 minutes each way, and the passenger fare was $15 one way and $25 roundtrip.  The service lasted for five months before Mitten finally gave up and sold his interest in Hoover Field.  Other companies took up the challenge of providing air service to DC, with mixed success.

Even though accidents were thankfully rare, Hoover Field was considered one of the most dangerous airfields in the country.  A major road ran along the east side of the field.  Nearby landfills often burned trash, producing black smoke that reduced visibility to virtually zero.  Power lines, radio antennas and a tall smokestack made approaches hazardous.  Improvements to the field helped, but the site was too cramped for a viable airport.  In 1927, Hoover Field lost the local airmail contract due to the dangerous conditions, though passenger flights continued including service to New York and other cities.


The north end of Hoover Field (left and bottom of the photograph) 1932. Military Road extends to the bottom right of the photograph. Washington Airport is to the right of the Military Road. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HAER VA,30-____,8—209; http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.va1677/photos.368606p accessed January 18, 2017).

A second airfield named Washington Airport opened for business in 1927 on a tract of land directly adjacent to Hoover. The two airfields operated jointly at times and finally merged into one facility in 1933 under the name of Washington-Hoover Airport.  New local ordinances prohibited some (but not all) trash burning, which improved visibility.  The main problem was the government-owned Military Road that crossed between the two airfields.  With the merger, the main runway was extended directly across – you guessed it – Military Road.  The airport management attempted to stop traffic to allow planes to land and take off, but were fined by county officials for obstructing traffic!  It took an act of Congress to allow the airport to install traffic lights, and eventually the road was rerouted around the airport.

Throughout the 1930s, gradual improvements to the airport and removal of nearby hazards significantly improved safety.  But planes were getting bigger and safety standards were constantly improving, and Washington-Hoover had no space for longer runways or many new safety measures.  Every attempt to find a better site for a more suitable airport was stymied by a provision in the Air Commerce Act that prohibited the Federal government from owning or operating commercial airports;  in the DC area, there was no viable way to build an airport without involving Federal land or resources.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt engineered a workaround – the new Civil Aeronautics Act allowed the Federal government to build commercial airports if necessary for national defense.  Construction began on a new Washington National Airport on reclaimed land along the Potomac River, south-east of Washington-Hoover.  After National (later renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) opened in 1941, the land that had been Hoover Field was sold to the War Department to become the site of the Pentagon.  The name Hoover Field, once synonymous with innovation in aeronautics, faded into obscurity.

For more reading about Hoover and aviation:

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Lou Hoover’s System for Dealing with the Depression

By Thomas F. Schwartz

#31-1928-f03 First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

#31-1928-f03 First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.

A widespread characterization of the Hoover presidency is that he ignored the needs of average Americans during the worst hardship.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Every request for assistance sent to the White House was forwarded to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.  Mrs. Hoover set up a system which both evaluated the severity of the need as well as assigning the task where it would get the best response and attention.  Unfortunately, most of these requests no longer exist because Lou Hoover felt the requests were private matters and that most of the individuals did not want their requests known as a simple matter of personal pride and dignity. What follows is a memorandum written by Philippi Harding Butler who served as personal secretary to Mrs. Hoover from 1920-24 and again from 1929-33:

“RE Relief Cases & Various Pleas for Help received by Mrs. Hoover

This type of mail became so voluminous that in early 1931 Mrs. Hoover designated one of her secretaries—one in her personal employ—to use every means possible to find help in response to these appeals.

In every Cabinet Secretary’s office we had a contact to whom were sent the questions and appeals which would only be answered or investigated by a Department.  In each case the writer of the appeal had a reply from Mrs. Hoover’s secretary telling what was being done with the question, and in each case there was a follow-through by the Department in question with a report as to what was or was not possible and what had actually been done.

For the great number of questions and appeals of various kinds, we contacted friends all over the country who were located in an area from which a letter had come, or Committee which had been formed by various organizations to help in the emergency (to wit—Girl Scouts, General Federation of Womens Clubs, etc.).  The great mass however were handled by a Miss Heizer, recommended by the President’s Committee on Emergency Relief, who gave part time to this work and was paid personally by Mrs. Hoover.  She had knowledge of helpful Committees and organizations all over the country.

In each case the writer of the original appeal had a reply from Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, and his or her permission was asked to send the appeal to someone who might be helpful.  No appeal was sent to anyone without such permission.  Mrs. Hoover felt very strongly that people would write to her, as the President’s wife, not knowing where else to turn, and all names and circumstances were regarded as confidential by all of us working on the cases.  Reports came back on each ‘case’ and in a vast number real practical assistance was given; a very small proportion was found to be unworthy.  In a great many cases, where special help was needed with no source for it, Mrs. Hoover would donate the money needed, but anonymously, through the friend or agency handling the situation.

As a consequence of Mrs. Hoover’s insistence that all such matters be considered confidential, at least a quantity equal to two filing drawers full were removed from the files.  Many routine matters and those sent to Departments for official answer were left in the ‘Downstairs’ files.”

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