Herbert Hoover took office as the 31st President of the United States in March of 1929. Several months later on Tuesday, October 29, the stock market crashed triggering the onset of the Great Depression. Americans were reluctant to spend money on holiday gifts and Christmas cards, but this didn’t stop the President and First Lady Lou Henry from doing so. The First Lady had an impressive collection of old photographs of the White House and gave five different etchings of these photographs to over 200 White House staff members. Some were mounted and personalized with the greeting, “Best Wishes of Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover.” Additionally, President Hoover gave his personal staff a photo of himself on his horse, Billy, at his Rapidan Camp in Shenandoah Nation Park, Virginia.
Despite the poor economic climate, the White House received a surprising number of Christmas cards and gifts that year. In response to this overwhelming generosity, the President and First Lady sent out 3,100 engraved notecards with four variations of the following greeting: “The President and Mrs. Hoover cordially reciprocate your holiday greetings.”
The Hoovers carried on the tradition set by the Coolidges of lighting the National Christmas Tree. The original living Norway spruce donated to Coolidge in 1924 by the AFA (American Forestry Association) had to be replaced due to wear and tear from decorating and trimming. Another living Norway spruce was donated by the AFA from Amawalk Nursery in Westchester County, New York and planted in Sherman Plaza. During the tree lighting ceremony, the President addressed the crowd and the listeners on their radios, “I want to have the privilege of wishing you all, and all the unseen audiences, a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.”
On Christmas Eve of 1929, an electrical fire broke out in the West Wing of the White House…the third fire in the White House since 1814. The following year, the Hoovers had the building remodeled and the roof replaced. The remodel produced heaps of wood scraps, which the Hoovers had made into gifts for their staff members. Some of these items included bookends, ashtrays, paper cutters, and boxes. Each gift was accompanied by the following poem, written by First Lady Hoover herself:
Recollections of a Piece of Wood 1930
A pine-tree on the hills of Maryland-through many summers’
Heats and winters’ snows,
Felled, carted, quartered, sawn, a metamorphosis within week.
And then a century buried deep within the White House walls,–
Unseen, unsung, but one of myriads holding firm together
The storied structure.
Until,–a new age came and replaced steel for wood.
Then months upon the dump-heap,–the dump cart actually
Arrived for one last ride,–
And then a rescue. Now here I rest upon your desk for a short
Space; until,–the wastebasket and the fire.
The once again I’ll go,–free smoke before free wind,–to touch
again the hills of Maryland.
Additionally, each gift was accompanied by an engraved card with a personalized greeting that read, “The President and Mrs. Hoover take Christmas pleasure in presenting this historic bit of pinewood with their greetings.” Mrs. Hoover also had framed photograph prints distributed to additional staff members and aides.
For Christmas in 1931, the Hoovers gave out more prints to family, staff members, and aides. Some of these included photo etchings done by J.C. Claghorn of the Washington Monument, the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, and Mount Vernon. They also gave a etchings of the Capitol building done by well known etching artist Don Swann. All of the prints were either framed or matted. Additionally, the Hoovers gave out four different matted, framed, and signed photographs of the Washing Monument to White House staff members.
In 1932, for the Hoovers last Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they gave a gift of a leather folder that included photographs of the President and a separate photograph of the First Lady with two White House police dogs. A personal note accompanied the folder that read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Herbert Hoover and from Lou Henry Hoover and Weegie and Pat 1932 – 33.” After a failed re-election attempt, the Hoovers decided to take a holiday cruise on the U.S.S. Sequoia, which sailed the waters off the coast of the southern states. For the first time since the national tree lighting ceremony became an annual tradition, the Vice President led the ceremonies in Washington.