Future President Herbert Hoover is born on this day in 1874 in West Branch, Iowa. After being tragically orphaned at the age of nine, Hoover lived with his uncle, attended Quaker schools and then graduated from Stanford University with a degree in engineering.
Hoover and his wife Lou went to China in 1899, where he worked as an engineering consultant for the Chinese government. The next year, Chinese nationalists rebelled against European colonial control and besieged westerners living in the city of Tientsin. During the siege, Hoover led an enclave of westerners in building barricades near their residential section of Tientsin. One story about this dramatic event has Hoover narrowly escaping with his life while attempting to rescue some Chinese children caught in the crossfire of urban combat one day during the month-long siege.
After an international coalition of troops rescued the Hoovers and spirited them and other westerners out of China, Herbert Hoover was made a partner at Bewick, Moreing and Co. He and Lou split their time between residences in California and London and traveled the world between 1901 and 1909. They then returned to the U.S. and, after serving as secretary of commerce under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 to 1924, Hoover headed the American Child Health Association and served as chairman of the Federal Street and Highway Safety Commission. During World War I, Lou chaired the American Women’s War Relief Fund and worked on behalf of other war-related charitable organizations. Both Hoovers, inspired by their experience in China, were active in helping refugees and tourists stranded in hostile countries.
In 1928, Hoover ran for president and won. Remarkably, it was his first election campaign—he had been appointed to his previous government positions. During the 1928 campaign, Hoover optimistically asserted that America was on the verge of snuffing out poverty and said “the poorhouse is vanishing from among us.” Despite his warnings against market speculation, the great stock market crash of October 1929 occurred less than a year into his presidency. Hoover’s tenure was thereafter associated with his inability to lead the nation out of the Great Depression and the couple’s reputation was soon tarnished by Hoover’s ineffective leadership and Lou’s ostentatious White House social functions, which appeared heartless, frivolous and irresponsible at a time when many Americans could hardly make ends meet. As the Depression deepened, a growing number of shanty towns full of destitute unemployed workers sprang up in city centers; they became known as “Hoovervilles.” Still, Hoover resisted implementing the type of emergency government relief programs advocated by his 1932 presidential campaign opponent, and ultimate successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
After his tenure in the White House, Hoover worked as an advisor for economic and humanitarian relief programs. In 1947, he worked closely with then-President Harry Truman to combat worldwide famine and to help European nations with post-World War II reconstruction.
Hoover died of heart failure on October 20, 1964, in New York City. His beloved wife Lou had died 20 years before, in 1944.