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GALLERY FOUR: The Wonder Boy

Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.
The Roaring Twenties were a time of constant change and innovation. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was active in everything from radio to aviation to child welfare.

Warren and Cal

Warren Harding was a small-town newspaper editor from Ohio who wanted to be America's best- loved President. And in fact, Harding's sudden death in August 1923 caused a genuine outpouring of popular emotion. Only later did his countrymen learn the sordid details of Teapot Dome and other scandals that would destroy Harding's historical reputation. According to the good-natured Harding, he had no trouble dealing with his enemies. "It's my damn friends that keep me awake at night."

Calvin Coolidge, Harding's vice president, was a very different sort--shy where the Ohioan was expansive, suspicious where his predecessor had trusted all too easily. Yet he was not the "Silent Cal" of legend, as transcripts of his press conferences make clear. Americans tired of "the mess in Washington" overwhelmingly elected Coolidge to a full term of his own in 1924. They laughed at his Vermont witticisms and nodded approvingly over what came to be known as Coolidge Prosperity. Most of all, they liked his tax cuts and the calm he restored after the war and scandals of Harding's era. During Coolidge's presidency the national debt was cut in half--the last time in U.S. history that such a feat was even attempted.
President Calvin Coolidge boarding a train with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. 1925-4
1925-4: President Calvin Coolidge prepares to board a train with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (Pacific and Atlantic--UPI)

Secretary of Commerce, Undersecretary of Everything Else

Herbert Hoover agreed to serve as Secretary of Commerce only after securing President-elect Harding's promise that he would have a free hand in all economic policy. Most people in 1921 viewed Commerce as a sleepy bureaucratic backwater, its main functions "turning out the lighthouses at night and putting the fish to bed." Yet under Hoover this themeless hodgepodge became the most dynamic agency in Washington.

Three new divisions were created to deal with housing, radio and aeronautics. While the Fisheries Bureau helped to save Alaska's salmon, Hoover convened a meeting of fishermen and oilmen to save Chesapeake Bay-- part of a seemingly endless series of public conferences and private think tanks, all designed to educate decision makers, inspire legislation or promote grassroots cooperation.

Under Secretary Hoover, the Census Bureau was expanded into an informational treasure trove for business planners. The Railway Labor Mediation Board was established in 1926. Hoover personally raised more than a million dollars to further scientific research.

As befitting the man who insisted that all airport runways be fitted with landing lights, radio beams and other safety devices, Washington's first airfield was given Hoover's name. In 1924 the Commerce Department sponsored the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety--this after 20,000 people died in auto accidents the previous year. Hoover himself wrote the nation's first uniform highway safety code after a friend obeying District of Columbia traffic regulations was cited for twenty-four violations en route to New York.

The Wonder Boy

By the summer of 1923, Warren Harding was a sick man, obsessed with corrupt friends who were selling out the nation's naval oil reserve at Wyoming's Teapot Dome. "In all the history of this government," Harding told his upright Secretary of Commerce, "there have only been three Cabinet officers who betrayed their chiefs, and two of them are in my Cabinet." On a trip to the West Coast late in July an anguished president asked Hoover what he would do if he uncovered a great scandal in the administration.

"Blow it out at once," replied Hoover. By itself, such an act would demonstrate Harding's personal integrity. But Warren Harding did not live to follow Hoover's advice. On the night of August 3 he suffered a fatal stroke in a San Francisco hotel room. On the other side of the continent the lights went on in a Vermont farmhouse. Calvin Coolidge was awakened by his father, a local justice of the peace, for a predawn inaugural that caught the public's fancy and launched the Coolidge legend.

Coolidge frowned on Hoover's activist approach to government. Privately he derided him as "The Wonder Boy". But Hoover's star was continuing to rise. The "Chicago Daily News" spoke for millions when it published the following in 1923:

Who kept the Belgians' black bread buttered?
Who fed the world when millions muttered?
Who knows the needs of every nation?
Who keeps the keys of conservation?
Who fills the bins when mines aren't earning?
Who keeps the homefires banked and burning?
Who'll never win a presidential position?
For he isn't a practical politician?
Hoover--that's all!"

Standardizing a Culture

In one of his most highly publicized campaigns, Secretary Hoover exhorted American industry to standardize products ranging from milk bottles and auto tires to kitchen plumbing and gas meters. According to humorists of the day, the only item not subject to Hoover's obsessive crusade to eliminate waste was the padlock key. But Hoover was dead serious, and for good reason. By reducing manufacturing costs and boosting productivity, standardization created jobs and made it easier for do-it-yourselfers to build a house or tighten a screw.

Some critics found fault with homogenized goods and the deadening monotony of the assembly line. Like the engineer that he was, Hoover preferred to concentrate on the practical benefits of commercial uniformity. It made no difference to him whether his automobile resembled that of a million other motorists, so long as it got him where he wanted to go safely and speedily. "The man who has a standard electric light, a standard radio, and one and a half hours more daily leisure is more of a man," he insisted. He has "more individuality than he has without these tools for varying his life."
A miniature exhibit depicting the Better Homes in America campaign.
A miniature exhibit depicting the Better Homes in America campaign overseen by Hoover during his tenure as Secretary of Commerce.

Better Homes in America

When not looking for ways to preserve the scenic splendor of Niagara Falls, pressuring leaders of the steel industry into accepting an eight hour workday or attacking British and Dutch monopolies of South American rubber, Hoover served as president of Better Homes in America, a prime example of what one scholar has labeled his "unique brand of cooperative capitalism."

No American industry enjoyed such explosive growth during the 1920s as housing construction. It didn't just happen.

More than 9,000 local chapters of the Better Homes organization helped lower the average cost of a new home by one-third, while stimulating a fifty percent increase in new construction. In thousands of communities across the land members staged annual contests for the best newly erected small house. They disseminated a manual for prospective homeowners written by Hoover. They also promoted a new building code for municipalities (another Hoover creation).

In 1920 only forty-one municipalities had zoning laws protecting homeowners from the encroachment of factories or businesses into residential areas. By 1928 there were 640. And the American Dream of homeownership was accessible to more citizens than ever before.

Child's Bill of Rights

The child's Bill of Rights created during Hoover's term as president of the American Child Health Association.
The child's Bill of Rights created during Hoover's term as president of the American Child Health Association in the 1920s.

The loss of both parents before his tenth birthday made Herbert Hoover deeply sympathetic to other children in distress. Throughout the 1920s he served as president of the American Child Health Association. Each May first was designated as "Child Health Day," a national event drawing almost as much publicity as the historic fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. The new organization launched surveys in thirty-one states; its findings shocked the nation into action.

For example, one annual report on infant mortality challenged lawmakers to improve maternity hospitals, hire full time health officials and discharge incompetent midwives.

A special Indian Nursing Service was established. Between 1923 and 1927 "flying squads" of ACHA personnel were sent into thirty states to monitor milk supplies. Thanks to their highly publicized findings, over 250 municipalities passed ordinances requiring pasteurization. By 1930 Hoover could announce that diarrhea was no longer a leading cause of death among American infants.

As president, Hoover increased the budget of the Children's Bureau and called a landmark White House Conference on the Health and Protection of Children. The nineteen point "Children's Charter" that came out of this gathering was in many ways an extension of the Child's Bill of Rights first published by the American Child Health Association in 1923.

Radio

Secretary of Commerce Hoover had  a small radio receiver installed in his home. 1927-1
1927-1: As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover had this small radio receiver installed in his home so he could understand complaints received by the department, ca. 1927. (Henry Miller)

At the start of the 1920s, radio was a costly novelty, limited to a few thousand amateurs across the country. Then came an explosion of popular interest that within four years led to two million sets and some 530 stations-- answerable to no one. Hoover changed all that, snatching regulation of the 'wireless telephone" away from the Bureau of Navigation and chairing a series of conferences, where it was decided that radio licenses would be limited initially to three months, that certain bands would be set aside for public service broadcasting, and that there would be no British-style regimentation of the airwaves.

In the course of his activities, Secretary Hoover received an angry telegram from radio preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. "Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone," it commanded. "You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wavelength nonsense. When I offer my prayers to Him, I must fit in with His wave reception." McPherson eventually eloped with the Commerce Department representative dispatched to explain the realities of federal regulation.

Another religious sect asked Hoover for permission to build a station from which to disseminate warnings of the world's imminent end. He told them to spend their money for air time on existing outlets; if the world was really going to end in a month, it would be a far wiser investment.

The First Television Star

Diagram depicting the new invention of television.
unacc-4: Diagram depicting the new invention of television, which Secretary of Commerce Hoover inaugurated on its first city-to-city broadcast in 1927. (Literary Digest)

A Washington funeral home might seem an unlikely place for the debut of a revolutionary technology. Yet that is precisely where television was born, on April 27, 1927. And Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was on hand for the first inter-city transmission of video imagery.

Two hundred miles away, sixty men gathered in the midtown Manhattan laboratory of A.T. & T., listened and watched as Hoover gazed into a small black box and spoke into an ordinary telephone receptacle. No one could predict how the new technology might be applied, said Hoover. "All we can say today is that there has been created a marvelous agency for whatever use the future may find with the full realization that every great and fundamental discovery of the past has been followed by use far beyond the vision of its creator."

Hoover's television appearance won rave reviews. Said the "New York Times," "It was fun as if a photograph had suddenly come to life and begun to talk, smile, nod its head and look this way and that..." Hoover himself was less thrilled by the subsequent development of the new medium. He generally limited his viewing to baseball games. Yet even there he was unable to avoid the single worst thing about TV--its singing commercials!

Taming the Colorado

An aerial, frontal view of Hoover Dam, ca. 1941.
1941-9A: An aerial, frontal view of Hoover Dam, ca. 1941. (United Airlines)

The Colorado River flows 1,700 miles from the icy western slope of the Rockies to the semi-tropical Gulf of California. Along the way it drains a quarter million mile area in seven states. Today twenty million people and two million farms rely upon the Colorado for their livelihood. But in the 1920s, the river slashed its way across a Great American Desert. Making things even worse, California's Imperial Valley was subject to regular flooding by the Colorado.

Theodore Roosevelt had tried and failed to get Congress to approve a flood relief program. Then in 1921, Herbert Hoover became Chairman of the Colorado River Commission. Quick to grasp the river's power and irrigation possibilities, Hoover summoned officials from each of the affected states. At round-the-clock meetings held in a remote mountaintop lodge in New Mexico, he did his best to balance conflicting interests, claims of state sovereignty, and Indian tribal rights.

For eighteen days they talked. When greedy Californians refused to compromise their demands, the secretary announced, "I'm going to disband this conference...and [say] that you are the people who killed Cock Robin." The Californians left, but the other delegates stayed long enough to hammer out a historic compact dividing water and power on a prearranged formula. Private power companies spent huge sums to defeat the plan in Congress. But after a five year lobbying effort by Hoover's Commerce Department, the Colorado River Compact was approved.

In 1931, construction work began on Hoover Dam, one of the engineering marvels of the modern age.

A River on the Rampage

Hoover at a refugee camp during the 1927 Mississippi flood. 1927-59A
1927-59A: Hoover visits children in a refugee camp during the 1927 Mississippi flood.

Hoover's faith in American generosity and know-how was dramatically confirmed in the spring of 1927, when the Mississippi River rushed over its bank, flooding 20,000 square miles under a sheet of yellow water and leaving 600,000 people without shelter. Over three hundred people died in the greatest natural disaster in American history.

Hoover rushed to the scene to assess needs and direct resources where most needed. He went on the radio to raise $15,000,000 for the Red Cross. Coordinating the efforts of eight separate government agencies as well as the Red Cross, the Secretary of Commerce assembled an armada of 600 ships, ordered a trainload of feed from Chicago (promising, "We'll settle this later"), and organized vast tent cities for tens of thousands of refugees. Hoover's relief was color-blind; in one southern city he brusquely told a group of white businessmen that unless they produced $5 million by the time his train left he would start transporting neglected Blacks north that same night.

Visiting ninety-one communities, Hoover's message was the same in each: "A couple of thousand refugees are coming. They've got to have accommodations. Huts. Water mains. Sewers. Streets. Dining halls. Meals. Doctors. Everything. And you haven't got months to do it. You haven't got weeks. You've got hours. That's my train."

"I suppose I could have called in the whole of the Army," said Hoover later. "But what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself."

Searching for a Philosophy

The Commerce Department would prove to be a perfect training ground for Hoover's vision of a society always advancing through individual enterprise and warmhearted cooperation. In 1922 he published "American Individualism," a volume distilling his earlier experiences in Belgium, the Food Administration and the ARA. "We might as well talk of abolishing the sun's rays if we would secure our food," wrote Hoover, "as to talk of abolishing individualism as a basis of successful society."

Yet American individualism was unlike any other. Tempered by equality of opportunity and a sense of obligation to one's neighbors, "Its stimulus is competition. Its safeguard is education. Its greatest mentor is free speech and voluntary organization for the public good."

It wasn't difficult to trace the origin of his faith. Out of his Quaker background came Hoover's insistence on the spark of divinity within each person. His personal struggle for success had convinced him that "human leadership cannot be replenished by selection like queen bees, by divine right or bureaucracies." At the same time his humanitarian work had instilled a passionate belief in voluntary association for the common good. By the 1920s Hoover's unique brand of individualism-- generous enough to promote social justice and self-confident enough to ward off the deadening hand of government dictation--was being applied throughout America. Red Crosses, Community Chests, YMCAs and settlement houses; here were the building blocks of what Hoover called the Individualizing State.


Gallery Index | 1:Years of Adventure | 2:The Humanitarian Years | 3:The Roaring Twenties | 4:The Wonder Boy | 5:The Logical Candidate | 6:The Great Depression | 7:From Hero to Scapegoat | 8:An Uncommon Woman | 9:Counselor to the Republic


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