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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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