When World War I began in August, 1914, Herbert and Lou Hoover were living in London’s posh Mayfair section.
Herbert Hoover was a 40-year old mining engineer and consultant in 1914. He had offices in six countries and was a millionaire several times over. It was a far cry from his poor-Iowa-farm-orphan upbringing.
By his own talents, diligence and innate leadership, he parlayed a tuition-free Stanford University education into a series of positions, usually far above what his youth and inexperience would demand. He did not disappoint.
His wife of fifteen years, Stanford educated Lou Henry Hoover had a busy life for herself in London. In addition to raising two sons, she had become active in various social and civic outlets.
Bottom line: The Hoovers had a happy and substantial social life. While they did not travel in “royal” circles, they entertained frequently and counted as friends several high-level business and government officials.
The European Money Crisis 1914.
Bert Hoover had no idea that his life as he knew it, was coming to an abrupt end. Europe had been a tinderbox for more than a decade, and in midsummer, 1914, it ignited with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. The flames spread rapidly, consuming the continent.
There were more than 100,000 Americans in Europe that summer. Some had lived there for years, some were on business, some on vacation – and many with families. When the great armies mobilized, their one thought was to get home as quickly as possible. England was a key terminus for ships bound for America.
The huge problem was money, or more precisely, the availability of spendable money. Most of them had American dollars in their pockets; some had substantial letters of credit from well-known banks. But each belligerent country only accepted its own currency. In those pre-euro days, that meant that France only accepted francs; Germany the deutschmark, Italy the lire, etc. That also included the British pound.
As thousands of Americans poured into the London train stations, they could not get so much as a cup of coffee or a place to stay for the night while they were trying to make travel arrangements. They did not have (and could not get) pounds and shillings.
One of the British officials assigned to manage this “surprise” crisis was a friend of the Hoovers. He called Bert and asked if he might come and help sort out the sprawling mess. Hoover did not hesitate.
The Quick Fix
It did not take Herbert Hoover very long to determine what his fellow Americans needed: a small “loan” to get them food and lodging until they could settle their passage reservations. It was considered a “temporary” problem, but an immediate one that needed to be resolved.
Within the hour he telephoned his wife to bring all the money they had in the house – 500 pounds (the equivalent of about $2500).
Then, with nothing more than pen and paper, he began lending Americans two or three or five pounds – enough to bridge the gap. All he required was a hand-signed note to secure the “loan.” The following day, he went to the bank and withdrew several thousand pounds, and continued his home-made remedy.
Years later, Hoover wrote that he personally “lent” around $300,000 of his own money in dribs-and-drabs. He added that perhaps only $300 went unpaid, and suggested that some people may have died in the interim.
Meanwhile Mrs. Hoover…
Having been made aware of the huge influx of Americans descending upon the London train stations, Lou Henry Hoover determine upon her own “quick fix.” She called several of her woman friends to help relieve some of the most pressing problems.
They contacted various restaurants and hotels to send sandwiches and coffee and milk for the children – to be distributed free of charge to the stranded travelers.
Then they arranged to have a section of the station cordoned off for a make-shift day-care area. Cribs and cookies, tables and chairs, and games and toys were quickly collected, plus dozens of volunteers to be “nannies-for-an-hour.” This way infants, toddlers and restless youngsters were supervised and occupied for a little while so their parents could stand in line to make travel arrangements.
The Hoovers Change Careers
The American cash crisis was resolved fairly quickly, but no sooner than that crunch was over, a new crisis began. Belgium – a neutral nation – was overrun by German soldiers who trampled through and practically destroyed the country. Thousands of Belgians were made homeless; even more were starving, and winter was coming on.
The opportunity to be of service ignited the imaginations and consciences of both Herbert and Lou Hoover.
He would never again work as a mining consultant, and within the year, arranged for his business interests to be divested.
From that time on, he became a Humanitarian with a “capital H”, channeling all his energies and immense organizational talents into philanthropy on a grand scale.
And he never took a dime of public money in compensation for any of his services.
Mayer, Dale M. – Lou Henry Hoover, A Prototype for First Ladies – Nova History Publications, 2004
Smith, Richard Norton – An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover – Simon and Schuster, 1984
Pryor, Dr. Helen B. – Lou Henry Hoover: Gallant First Lady – Dodd Mead, 1969