Researchers have discovered the earliest known color movies of the White House in the archives of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library in West Branch, Iowa. We owe these precious glimpses of First Family life to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, an enormously accomplished woman — Stanford graduate, world traveler, co-translator with her husband of a Latin mining text by Agricola, fluent Chinese speaker (she remains to this day the only First Lady to speak an Asian language) — with a wide variety of interests, among them photography. When the pictures started moving, she was an enthusiastic early adopter of the new technology and was shooting home movies with her own camera by the early 1920s.
When Kodak introduced the Kodacolor motion picture process in 1928, Lou Hoover was on it like white on rice. Kodacolor was an additive color system, filmed on black-and-white stock through a three-colored striped filter. When footage was shot, the three colors were recorded in strips on the film in different densities and proportions depending on the natural color of the subject. The camera had to be used at a very specific frame rate in order for the filter to work, and bright ambient light was de rigeur.
Lou Hoover started shooting in Kodacolor in 1929 and must have stopped by 1935 when the process was superseded by Kodachrome film. Her home movies capture President Hoover at leisure both at the White House and on vacation. There are shots of Herbert fishing in Florida in January of 1929, wearing a coat and tie. He was still President-elect at that time, but he believed the dignity of the office he’d been elected to required a certain formality of attire, even on private fishing trips. Mrs. Hoover also captured their grandchildren playing, their sons on vacation, historic sites of Washington, DC, dogs frolicking at the White House, White House butler Alonzo Fields and shots of Lou in the White House garden. The last of the seven reels shows the President throwing a medicine ball back and forth with staffers on the White House grounds. This sport would become known as Hooverball.
Kodacolor film required a projector with a filter similar to the one used on the camera in order for the color to display. If you just look at the film, or use a projector without the Kodacolor Projection Filter, it looks like a weirdly stripey black and white movie. That’s what the staff of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library thought about their collection of Lou Hoover’s home movies. Audio Visual Archivist Lynn Smith recognized those tell-tale stripes as Kodacolor, and thus very likely the first color film shot at the White House. (Calvin Coolidge wasn’t a home movie guy, and he had one foot out the door when Kodacolor was introduced.)
Smith applied for a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to have the rare historic home movies restored, and the NFPF came through. They preserved the footage, digitized it and sent the reels back to West Branch in December.
Worried she might damage the film, Smith said she used a hand-crank projector to play the film when it arrived. For the first time, she could see the colors of First Lady Lou Hoover’s dress and the hues of the White House Rose Garden.
“It was pretty amazing to see the color,” said Smith, 50. “I’m looking at theses [sic] images of Lou in the White House, Mr. Hoover playing Hoover ball and other things in Washington, D.C.”
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum-Library will debut all seven reels in their auditorium on Wednesday, March 29th. The museum picked the date on purpose to celebrate Lou Hoover on what would have been her 143rd birthday. On the same day, the films will be uploaded to the Library’s YouTube channel, so bookmark or subscribe to see the rare footage fresh off the virtual presses. Until then, we’ll have to make do with this short preview of the Hoover home movies: