She is often overshadowed among 20th century First Ladies, coming along in the historical timeline between the highly popular Grace Coolidge who presided over the zesty Roaring Twenties, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the legendary humanitarian, but Lou Hoover was one of the nation’s most accomplished presidential spouses. She came to the White House with expertise in a number of divergent fields.
She was an amateur architect, helping to execute her vision of a modernistic home in northern California of cubist block forms and multi-leveled open-aired terraces, but also of a woodsy presidential retreat in the the cool Shenandoah mountain range of Virginia. She believed that architecture must always be crafted to blend into the natural, indigenous landscape.
She had travelled the world, extensively learning about those places few Americans at the time even knew existed, and immersing herself with respect and curiosity in the cultures of foreign lands, including Egypt, China, India, New Zealand, Russia, Ceylon, Burma, and Japan. Her ease with language had her learning not only to speak but write Chinese and, with her husband, translate from Latin to English an essential text on metallurgy, first printed in the 1500s.
Long before she earned her college degree in geology, however, Lou Hoover was at home in the natural world.
As a companion to her father, she learned to fish, pitch a tent, find her way through the woods, identify edible and dangerous greens. Nothing was more glorious to her than sleeping out beneath the stars.
As she matured, Mrs. Hoover came to recognize how unusual it was for a woman to be so physically active and fit, let alone enjoy it as much as she did.
Yet both her physical stamina and mental strength were outcrops of the discipline and the gifts that came from known the earth as well as she did, and exploring it with respect.
Soon, she would strive to offer the same opportunities of knowing nature and deriving the same gifts from it to hundreds of thousand of young American women.
Lou Hoover brought all these sensibilities to the fore when, in 1917 she was recruited by Juliette Gordon Low to become a National Commissioner of the organization she had founded just five years earlier, The Girl Scouts.
Today, Mrs. Hoover is remembered as First Lady most strongly by her association with the Girl Scouts. During her four years in the White House, although she held the title of the organization’s “honorary ” president, she raised a half-million dollars to help restructure and standardize the organization, increase membership, addressed its annual convention, delivered radio speeches to the troops, and edited field guides and instructional manuals.
It was, however, her initial experience with The Girl Scouts, which coincided with U.S. entry into the European conflict then known as “The Great War” that forged her into a national leader.
Living in London at the time World War I first began, she had first-hand knowledge of the sudden and severe food shortage crisis, particularly in Belgium. Farming regions that had provided produce had suddenly become battlefield and regular good delivery routs were cut off by fighting. Lou Hoover rose to the occasion, leading a successful effort to provide emergency food supplies to starving Belgians.
Relocating to Washington, D.C. from her home in northern California when her husband Herbert Hoover was made the U.S. Food Administrator, Mrs. Hoover believed Girl Scouts could respond to the need for food conservation.
This was not only a matter of adhering to rationing, consuming only certain foods on certain days, and using sugar, dairy and meat substitutes, but also growing one’s own vegetables and fruits.
And so, in her new job with the Girl Scouts, Lou Hoover undertook an effort not to merely print guidelines or give lectures, but to demonstrate with her own hands how to create wartime gardens.
Working with troops of local Washington Girl Scouts in one of the organization’s local properties, she taught them how to prepare soil for produce planting, cultivate and harvest produce and, importantly, to re-soil vegetable the garden plots. While they were making the field trip, she also taught them how to pitch a tent and live outdoors.
While many photographs would show Lou Hoover dressed in the leadership uniforms of the Girl Scouts, with its plain, dark-green suit and brimmed hats, these rarely seen images show her in the real life effort of toil and soil, wearing an old, brimmed men’s hat, a long, protective dress.
As she hoes the soil or inspects a tin cup of just the right amount of water necessary for growing plants, Mrs. Hoover’s hair is astray but through it all, she smiles, enjoying every moment.
After the war, during the eight years that Herbert Hoover served as Secretary of Commerce during the Harding and Coolidge Administrations, Lou Hoover continued to work for The Girl Scouts, serving as its vice president, president and national board of directors chair.
She helped to establish its “Little House” in the capital city, a demonstration home where scouts were taught to cook, bake, clean but also budget, economize and organize their time.
She also enlisted the support of First Ladies Florence Harding and Grace Coolidge, having them not only serve as honorary presidents but coming to visit the Little House.
The lessons she learned and taught during World War I as a Girl Scouts leader impressed upon Mrs. Hoover the belief that the troops of young women would make them natural community activists as they matured, with the hope they would extend their training to civic projects.
When she became First Lady, she had every hope that the troops would be a strong enough force during the Great Depression to meet the sudden needs of the nation’s unemployed, homeless and hungry but the problem was too vast to be solved this way.
Two years after leaving the White House, Mrs. Hoover served as a member on The Girl Scouts’ National Board of Directors, while also working as its President for a second time, for a two-year term. As a former First Lady, Mrs. Hoover held the title of Girl Scouts Honorary Vice President until her death in 1944.
It was during her last period of work with the organization that Lou Hoover helped promote what became its most familiar symbol.
Envisioning the expansion of an annual sale among hundreds of individual troops of a simple box of baked treated first sold in 1936 by a Philadelphia troop, the former First Lady eagerly put on her familiar uniform and posed for press photographs holding Girl Scout cookies.