First First Lady on the Radio: Lou Hoover & the Great Depression

Lou Hoover makes her premier radio address. (ecommcode.com)

Lou Hoover makes her premier radio address. (ecommcode.com)

With the advent of radio at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties and the introduction of sound to feature films and newsreels, Americans could finally hear what the famous people whose faces they knew really sounded like.

Grover Cleveland shakes hands with kids and adults in the East Room.

Grover Cleveland, welcoming guests in the East Room, was the first incumbent President to have his voice recorded.

The voice of Presidents and First Ladies, being national celebrities, evoked a great degree of public curiosity. Grover Cleveland’s voice was the first one recorded of an incumbent President and Calvin Coolidge was the first incumbent President to have his voice and moving image syuched, speaking in a newsreel.

There was still a sense of reluctance of incumbent First Ladies, however, to have their voices recorded, given that many of them were ambivilent about what degree of public exposure would be deemed “appropriate” for them, since they weren’t elected officials. In the early to mid-20th century, there were an unprecedented number of former First Ladies living.

Two of them, Edith Roosevelt and Grace Coolidge agreed to speak for the “talkie” newsreels (you can hear and watch both of them speaking by clicking the links on their names).

Lou Hoover in her uniform as national president of the Girl Scouts.

Lou Hoover in her uniform as national president of the Girl Scouts.

It was not until Lou Hoover entered the White House in 1929, however, that an incumbent First Lady had her voice recorded.

With experience as a public speaker and as a former national president of the Girl Scouts, she was comfortable in front of the microphone.

No single crisis more defined and overshadowed the Hoover Administration than the dramatic drop of the stock market in October of 1929.

Men selling apples on street corners during the Great Depression.

Men selling apples on street corners during the Great Depression.

Beginning what would soon be known as the Great Depression, it was a time of unprecedented crash of market investments, business failures, factory closings, housing losses, and massive unemployment.

As it worsened over the course of the Hoover Administration, the lack of earnings began to hit American families of all classes; those without substantial cash savings or the prospects of employment were often unable to afford the most basic needs of food, shelter and clothing.

In light of Herbert Hoover’s enormously successful relief programs during World War I in which his wife had played a vital role, Lou Hoover had confidence in his initial, conservative approach of addressing the crisis through small- and large-scale volunteer drives to alleviate either widespread suffering or individual cases.

As the crisis worsened into 1930 and 1931, the First Lady began to receive hundreds and then thousands of letters from

Lou Hoover hands out Christmas baskets at the Salvation Army to the poor of the Depression, December 24 1931

Lou Hoover hands out Christmas baskets at the Salvation Army to the poor of the Depression, December 24 1931

citizens appealing for particular types of help – money, food, employment, clothing. She took it upon herself to respond personally and hired extra secretaries to help process the request, whom she personally salaried.

She would refer the request for support to a wealthy friend or organization such as the Red Cross, Community Chest, Salvation Army and American Friends Service Committee – or, most astoundingly, send a personal “loan” to the stranger.

As more requests poured in, the First Lady hired an aide to handle and process them. Despite the Hoovers’ publicly-stated belief that federal government intervention in the crisis was wrong, Lou Hoover had the requests for aid that she received first reviewed to see if it was a situation that could be alleviated by those federal programs which were established and remained intact.

Lou Hoover made one public appearance that sought to illustrate the viability of the Hoover Administration’s 1930 creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a federal program providing loans to banks, insurers, and large transportation and commerce industries such as railroads and shipbuilding.

Lou Hoover working a sewing machine in a photo op showing her as a volunteer making clothes for the needy of the Great Depression.

Lou Hoover working a sewing machine in a photo op showing her as a volunteer making clothes for the needy of the Great Depression.

In July 1930, she went to Camden, New Jersey to christen the Excalibur, a newly-built 7,000-ton cargo-passenger ship, intended as an immediate symbol of the returning economic strength through Hoover’s RFC.

Lou Hoover was well aware of the suffering during the Great Depression.

Lou Hoover was well aware of the suffering during the Great Depression.

However, Lou Hoover kept her remarks to those traditionally made at such ceremonies, leaving it to other speakers to spell out the link between the event and the RFC.

The greatest effort which Lou Hoover sought to forge in response to the Great Depression was organizing and inspiring a volunteer network among the quarter of a million Girl Scout members. In 1931, she proposed this to the Girl Scout leadership and it was subsequently presented at their annual convention.

In two of her radio speeches, she sought to inspire Girl Scouts to go into their communities and discover which families were struggling and then help to “plan that the excess in your community may be systematically gathered together and through the aid of the many channels of relief may be sent where it is needed.”

Here is a sound newsreel that was filmed simultaneously to one of her 1931 radio addresses:

It was a well-intentioned, optimistic idea but hardly enough to stem the havoc which the Great Depression continued to affect the American people. In the end, it led to Herbert Hoover’s defeat for re-election in 1932, the victor being Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lou Hoover in ger Girl Scout leader uniform with Weejie her German Shephard dog

Lou Hoover in ger Girl Scout leader uniform with Weejie her German Shephard dog

 


Categories: First Ladies, The Hoovers

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4 replies »

  1. I don’t intend this to be a snide or cruel remark, but until this newsreel, I never realized the large separation in Mrs. Hoover’s teeth. That led me to look at photographs and portraits of her and now see she always posed with her lips together. This must have been deliberate on her part. Was anything ever written about this? I don’t recall ever reading anything referring to it. Ironically, her successor as first lady, ER, has had mountains written about every aspect of her appearance, including her teeth. It’s interesting how moving pictures allow us to “know” people in ways all together different from stills. Makes one wonder what we might not now about the appearances of Lincoln or Jefferson or any of the others from long-ago.

    • Not snide at all – in fact, you really make a great point about how the real physical appearance of historical figures has come to affect our perception of their effectiveness. Nobody got this as fast and as well as Theodore Roosevelt, who crafted his visual image to suit the persona of himself which he wanted to be publicly cast – even as to the way he walked, knowing that “moving picture” cameras were recording him. I think that First Ladies have been more behind the curve on this being ambivalent about their worthiness of media coverage. You are right in also observing the cruel comments so often made by Eleanor Roosevelt’s political detractors who caricatured her buck teeth in cartoons and impersonations and that Lou Hoover’s gapped front teeth escaped public ridicule, let alone acknowledgement. I think that’s for two reasons – 1, she was not politically overt and controversial for being so, like ER. And 2, she was not seen as often as ER in newsreels or speaking. I think this one included in the article might be the only one, at least which showed her close up. Thanks for the observations Nick!

  2. It is refreshing to read an article that humanizes Mrs. Hoover and shares what a caring person she was as this can get forgotten due to the Hoover name being attached to the Great Depression. My great uncle was acquainted with the Hoovers and knew them to be kind people.

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