Herbert Hoover, Economic Mastermind


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As secretary of commerce during President Warren G. Harding's administration and then President Coolidge's, Herbert Hoover seized on the cooperation between industry and science that had emerged during World War I and boldly extended it further into the realm of commerce. His war-time experience as a kind of productivity czar and minimizer of waste ("Hooverizing") was good preparation for this effort.

A mining engineer by training, Commerce Secretary Hoover was much influenced by the ideas of Frederick "Speedy" W. Taylor (1856-1915), an efficiency engineer regarded as the father of "scientific management." (INTRO NOTE Taylorism) Under Hoover's leadership, initiatives undertaken within the Department of Commerce by the Bureau of Standards and the Division of Simplified Practice reflected the impact of Frederick W. Taylor on the business world, and set the tone for a nationwide effort to maximize worker, managerial and industrial productivity.

Armed with an immense faith in the power of scientific data and data-gathering and the ability of techniques of scientific efficiency to foster stability in the nation's work life, Hoover promoted research into business and industrial topics by enlisting the cooperation of business, government, organized philanthropy, and social science research agencies (INTRO NOTE Social Sciences). The fact-finding investigations were aimed at promoting business and worker prosperity under the umbrella, though not the direct intervention, of the federal government. The resulting survey data, made available at minimal cost in the form of Government Printing Office pamphlets and brochures, constituted a kind of early data bank of enormous value to businesses. (DETAIL NOTE Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce)

Among Secretary Hoover's most significant initiatives in this "war on waste" in both government and the private sector was standardization and simplification of industrial parts and procedures. (DETAIL NOTE Standardization) For example, the formulation of standard weights for loaves of bread, standard sizes for cans, and uniform rating of canned goods for quality, as well as standardization of packaging units--as in numbers of cans or boxes packed for shipping per carton--at a time when there was little conformity, greatly facilitated distribution, retailing and accounting. Standardization became a prime subject of surveys and statistics, too, as is evident in Progress in Elimination of Waste, an extract from the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Secretary of Commerce (1927).

In 1921, during President Harding's administration, Commerce Secretary Hoover appointed a committee of the President's Conference on Unemployment. With funding from the Carnegie Foundation and services contributed by business leaders, members of academe, other philanthropic foundations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Federation of Labor, among others, and investigations conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a social science research agency, the committee in 1923 produced a study of business cycles and unemployment. A part of the Department of Commerce's Elimination of Waste Series, the study suggested that unemployment itself was the greatest waste; the facts researched for the study were meant to stabilize the economy and help prevent a recurrence of the post-World War I business slump of 1920-21.

The work was carried forward during Coolidge's presidency when Secretary of Commerce Hoover, as chairman of the Committee on Recent Economic Changes of the President's Conference on Unemployment, projected a series of further social science surveys, including the two-volume, multi-chapter study Recent Economic Changes in the United States (1929). (DETAIL NOTE Recent Economic Changes) When Hoover himself became president, he initiated the sister study, Recent Social Trends in the United States. (DETAIL NOTE Recent Social Trends) Though not published until 1933, and then lost sight of amidst the exigencies of the Great Depression, the surveys of which Recent Social Trends consists constitute, with Recent Economic Changes, the most comprehensive mirror that the 1920s held up to itself. (INTRO NOTE Social Sciences)

As secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover also helped organize at the Federal Trade Commission a series of trade practice conferences, intended to forge voluntary, industry-by-industry consensus on what constituted fair trade practices, in keeping with the Coolidge administration's faith in the ability and willingness of business to monitor and, when necessary, reform itself. (DETAIL NOTE Federal Trade Commission)

In addition, Secretary of Commerce Hoover played a lead role in the establishment in 1922 of the Better Homes in America organization and its annual Better Homes Campaigns, which promoted consumerism by celebrating home ownership, home improvements, home decoration and home furnishing. President Coolidge himself was honorary chairman of the Advisory Council of Better Homes in America, while Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover served as president of the Board of Directors. (INTRO NOTE The Home)

Hoover's vision of a responsible consumerism encompassed the education of housewives to buy wisely, the education of businessmen to engage in fair trade practices, and the education of advertisers to conduct advertising in a honest manner. The June 1925 issue of the trade journal Associated Advertising carries the Hoover speech "Truth-in-Advertising Work is Achieving a Notable Success," about the need for the advertising industry to monitor itself by erecting ethical standards and "exercise . . . censorship over extravagant, distasteful and misleading copy." (INTRO NOTE Advertising)


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