What sort of president did the public think it had chosen? How did Hoover perceive himself and his mandate? The course of Hoover's earlier career predicted to some extent the character of his presidency. Amid the rolling farms surrounding West Branch, Iowa, hacked out of the wildwood by his sturdy and independent forebears, Herbert Clark Hoover, born on 11 August 1874, experienced a childhood filled with both the grief and the pleasures of nineteenth-century small-town life. In later years he would reminisce about the pleasures: swimming in streams large enough to dam, eating wild strawberries in the fields, collecting agate and coral along the railroad tracks. The grief that struck the boy came in a form familiar to the western pioneers who frequently lost children and relatives to diphtheria, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. When Bert was six years old, he lost his father, Jesse, an agricultural implements dealer who had long suffered from a form of heart disease. His mother, always religious, was a hard worker in temperance and Sunday school activities. After becoming a Quaker minister, she traveled to revival meetings, preaching the message of forgiveness and redeeming love. On her return from a winter trip, she died of pneumonia when Bert was nine. The boy himself had a close brush with death while suffering from croup.
The orphan shuttled between relatives on nearby farms until he left to live with an uncle in Oregon in late 1885. Such continuing abandonment and separation could have caused severe problems, but for the most part Hoover was later able to shut out the dark memories of his childhood, preferring not to speak of them and garbling his memory of dates and incidents. Certain possibilities about the emotional relationship between his early life and his adult career do suggest themselves. For example, one of young Hoover's favorite books was David Copper-field , the story of an orphan mistreated by adults. Yet Hoover arrived at a sort of rugged, progressive individualism. If he had to be alone, he would make the most of it. He made of his habitually outward-looking life an ideology—heroic individualism, the self-reliant man expressing himself in technological mastery and personal accomplishment. One particular reflection of his early life came in his relief efforts during the era of World War I: helpless, bereaved, abandoned people could count on his aid, though others had not always aided him. Hoover's later dislike of large inheritances also suggests the experience of being left on his own.
The Quaker idea of the Inner Light suggests a real but unseen decency, reasonableness, and harmony within the world. Among the Friends there is a special blend of piety and practical worldliness that expresses itself in business life, and a compound of moral urgency with a certain optimism that the world can be enticed to put its practical arrangements into good moral order. The Quakers immersed themselves in the full variety of nineteenth-century reforms: antislavery (West Branch was a station on the underground railroad, and John Brown spent one winter a mile outside of the town), suffrage for blacks, prison rehabilitation, Indian reform, poor-houses, and care of the insane. The progressive record of Hoover's first eight months in the White House suggests the influence of his Quaker upbringing.
Hoover's years in Oregon, from 1885 to 1891, trained him in business. John Minthorn, the stern uncle with whom he lived, was a doctor, a Quaker minister, and head of a small preparatory school, but his central interest was real estate. Dreaming of enticing settlers to the fertile Willamette Valley, he moved from Newberg to Salem to sell undeveloped land suitable for prune orchards. Hoover dropped out of high school to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Oregon Land Company and attended night school to learn bookkeeping, typing, and office skills. He helped buy and sell land and houses, run saw and flour mills, and arrange advertising in eastern papers. Before Minthorn's company failed in the depression of the 1890s, Hoover had already decided to attend Stanford University.
Hoover, who would later claim that he had been the first boy to take up residence at the new school (founded 1891), took advantage of the innovative curriculum. He received an excellent education in geology, taking about half of his credits in the department under Dr. John Branner and working summers for the U.S. Geological Survey. He also continued a career in business, organizing and selling laundry and newspaper routes. His social views expressed themselves in his disdain for fraternities on account of their snobbishness, and he would not allow his sons to join any at Stanford.
After Hoover was graduated from Stanford in 1895 with a B.A. in geology, he worked briefly as a day laborer in the Reward Gold Mine in Grass City, California. The experience won him a job with an important San Francisco firm that needed his practical knowledge of the Grass Valley mines for a legal case. This in turn led to a position with one of the world's leading mining consultant firms, Bewick, Moreing and Company of London.
Charles Algernon Moreing, desperate for qualified mining engineers willing to work the sultry wastes of the Western Australian goldfields, sent Hoover there in 1897. It was a good arrangement for the firm and for Hoover, who soon successfully recommended to London the purchase of the fabulous Sons of Gwalia gold mine. His other recommendations proved generally fruitful, and he showed increasing versatility as a mine manager and business consultant. Life in the Australian outback was not easy. The temperature frequently rose above 100°, even at night, and Hoover, suffering from physical debilitation brought on by overwork, would sometimes travel hundreds of miles through the desert lying on a mattress in the back of an open wagon. After three years in Australia, at the age of twenty-four, he was a recognized success and authority in his field. He wired Lou Henry, a Stanford geology major from Monterey, California, asking her to marry him, and she did early in 1899 in Monterey just before embarking with him to China on a new adventure.
Sent to China by Bewick, Moreing to find gold, Hoover arranged to exploit extensive and profitable coal deposits instead. He established relations with the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company just before the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 broke out, threatening the Western imperialist spheres of influence that had hitherto dominated China. In exchange for protection by the British, the Chinese signed the company over to Hoover, who in turn bartered it to Bewick, Moreing, in exchange for a partnership in that company. In China the Hoovers were trapped briefly in the city of Tianjin during the Boxer Rebellion; there he carried out relief efforts for the beleaguered European community similar to the famous work he would accomplish during and after World War I.
In 1901, Hoover and his wife made their home in London and raised two sons, Herbert and Allan, taking them sometimes on mining exploration trips around the world. On these ocean voyages, Hoover turned his attention to reading, giving himself some of the liberal arts education he had missed in the narrow curriculum of Stanford. He also wrote technical articles, which appeared in the world's professional mining magazines. He and his wife supervised and annotated the translation from Latin of De re metallica , a medieval treatise on mining that they published in 1912. Hoover also contributed thoughtful talks and editorials on the new profession of engineering. In a textbook, Principles of Mining (1909), he recommended progressive dealings with labor, favoring collective bargaining, high wages for hard work, and improvements in mine safety.
Hoover's most successful ventures after 1900 involved finding some great supply of base metal near a dependable transportation system. He would supply the world's growing industries, like steel, with needed base minerals. He achieved his greatest success, first with the help of his brother Theodore, after painfully slow experimentation with the extraction of zinc from slag heaps at Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia. His second successful venture lay with the Burma Corporation, which produced silver, lead, and zinc in abundant quantities. By 1914, Hoover, operating on his own since 1907, had important investments on every continent and offices in San Francisco, London, St. Petersburg, and Mandalay. Once he remarked that if a man "has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty he is not worth much." Hoover was worth about $4 million at the beginning of World War I.