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Herbert Hoover: Thirty-First President of the United States

Updated on March 11, 2021
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I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 60 books on history and various topics.

Portrait of Herbert Hoover, Oil on canvas by Douglas Chandor, 1931.
Portrait of Herbert Hoover, Oil on canvas by Douglas Chandor, 1931.

Early Life

In an age before the automobile or the radio, Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, at West Branch, Iowa. His father, Jesse Clark Hoover, was a successful blacksmith and farm equipment salesman. His mother, Hulda Minthorn Hoover, had attended the University of Iowa and taught school briefly before her marriage to Jesse. Tragedy struck the family when Herbert was six years old and his father died of heart trouble; two years later his mother died from pneumonia complicated by typhoid fever. Herbert, his brother, and his sister were orphaned. For a time, the children lived with relatives in Iowa. In 1885 young Herbert was sent by train to live with this aunt and uncle Dr. John and Laura Minthorn, in Newberg, Oregon. Uncle John, whose own son had recently died, was a stern, nonpacifist Quaker who taught the young lad the ways of the world. He attended the Friends Pacific Academy, where his aunt taught the elementary grades. Though he was an average student in most subjects, he seemed to have a knack for mathematics–in this he excelled. As a teenager he helped his uncle open a land sales office in nearby Salem where he worked as a bookkeeper.

Hoover was a bright young man and at the age of seventeen he enrolled in a new college that had just opened, Stanford University located in Palo Alto, California. There he majored in geology and worked various jobs to make financial ends meet. While at Stanford he would meet his future wife, Lou Henry, a banker’s daughter and a fellow geology student. Though not a particularly gifted student, he did graduate in 1895.

Birthplace of Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa.
Birthplace of Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa.

Career as a Mining Engineer

Fresh out of college and unable to find an engineering job, he found work at a gold mine near Nevada City, California, pushing ore carts 70 hours per week. This job didn’t last long as the mine began to decline and Hoover was hired by Bewick, Moreing, and Company, a mining company based in London. His first assignment was to investigate gold deposits that had been discovered in Western Australia. Based on his recommendation, Bewick, Moreing bought an existing mine that turned out to be very profitable for the company. While in Australia he proposed by telegram to Lou Henry and they were married when he returned to California in February 1899. Lou was a licensed mining engineer, loved the lure of travel to exotic places, and accompanied her husband as he traveled the world.

For their honeymoon the newlyweds took a steamer ship to China for Herbert’s new assignment. In China, Herbert discovered vast coal deposits in Chihli Province. With his success in China, Bewick, Moreing made him a junior partner. While in the city of Tientsin, the Hoovers and other foreigners found themselves in the middle of what would be known as the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Their city came under siege from rebels seeking to rid the country of foreign influence. Hoover took charge of constructing barricades and the food supply for the beleaguered foreign quarter. When the rebellion subsided, the Hoovers sailed for London.

Oil on canvas portrait of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover by Richard Brown.
Oil on canvas portrait of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover by Richard Brown.

World War I

Over the next several years they traveled the world, with two young sons in tow, looking for valuable minerals. In 1908, Hoover established his own company, which helped rescue financially troubled mining companies. At the start of World War I Hoover was in London where he witnessed the hardships the war caused on the British people and the Americans living there. He used his wealth and prestige to set up a relief organization called the American Citizen’s Relief Committee to help Americans wanting to flee Europe. Soon after, he become the head of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, which fed millions in German-occupied Belgium and northern France. Working tirelessly, he raised funds from the British, French, and American governments to aid those in need. When America joined in the war effort in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson brought Hoover to Washington, appointing him food administrator. In this position he worked to prevent food from being wasted, encouraging Americans to conserve food for the troops in Europe.

As the war drew to a close, Hoover went back to Europe in November 1918 to head the Inter-Allied Food Council that provided post war relief. To benefit the struggling farmers in America and the hungry Europeans, he petitioned Congress for $100 million in credits for the allied nations. He took on more than just providing food; he also led in rebuilding the shattered European economy. Through his efforts much of the infrastructure, railroads, communications, and riverways were revitalized. By the time he returned to the United States in 1919 he was hailed as “the great humanitarian,” becoming one of the best-known people in America. With his growing national prominence, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 but received little support. One supporter of Hoover in his presidential bid was the assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared, “He is certainly a wonder and I wish we could make him president of the United States.” Instead, the party chose senator Warren G. Harding as their candidate. After winning the White House, Harding appointed Hoover as secretary of commerce.

1917 Belgian relief poster.
1917 Belgian relief poster.

Secretary of Commerce

Hoover applied his skills as a manager and turned the Commerce Department from a bound-up bureaucracy into an efficient vital agency of the government. Using a series of national conferences with business leaders, he developed plans of action and programs to strengthen the economy. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover as vice chairman of the Second Industrial Conference in Washington. The group’s final report listed several progressive recommendations, calling for greater equity between profits and wages in corporations, the establishment of national minimum wage law, equality in pay for men and women, and limiting the work week to 48 hours.

During the 1920s, or the “Roaring 20s” as they were called, the new technologies of the radio, automobiles, motion pictures, and air travel were becoming part of the social fabric of America. Hoover saw the need to regulate and standardize these new industries for the benefit of the American people. One of the new technologies Hoover got involved with was the radio. In 1922 he began a series of conferences on this new technology that resulted in the establishment of guidelines for radio broadcast and issued licenses for assigning radio frequencies. In 1927 the Radio Act became law, which strengthened the federal government's authority "to regulate all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmissions and communications within the United States, its Territories, and possessions" and adopted a standard that radio stations had to be shown to be "in the public interest, convenience, or necessity.”

In addition to his role as the Secretary of Commerce, Hoover acted as the head of the American Relief Administration. When the Russians experienced a famine in 1921, he responded by sending food to the country with no political entanglements. Some complained that Hoover was helping a communist regime, to which he starkly replied, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!” The shipment of hundreds of tons of food to Russia did help the American farmers, who profited from the purchase of their products by the U.S. government.

Secretary of Commerce Hoover "listening in" on his radio set circa 1922.
Secretary of Commerce Hoover "listening in" on his radio set circa 1922.

The Hoover Dam Construction Project

The need to control seasonal flooding of the Colorado River and the demand for electricity prompted Hoover to form the Colorado River Commission. Hoover worked to rally southwestern states to build a large dam to control the river. Congress finally passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act that authorized the building of the Boulder Dam, which was renamed the Hoover Dam in 1947. The project provided much needed jobs and electricity for the region. When the dam was completed in 1935, it was the world’s largest, generating enough electricity to power over a million homes.

Hoover Dam under construction circa 1934.
Hoover Dam under construction circa 1934.

The Election of 1928

For Hoover’s years of dedicated service to the country he gained much notoriety. When President Calvin Coolidge announced, “I do not choose to run in 1928,” the Republican Party nominated Herbert Hoover as their candidate. The Republican platform called for expanding the “Coolidge Prosperity” of 1928. At his nomination acceptance speech at the party’s convention in Kansas City, Hoover declared, in words that he would later regret, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us….We shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” Reports were starting to emerge that the average American family was struggling to afford the necessities. The era of the Roaring ‘20s was about to end abruptly.

The Democrats ran New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic in an era when many Americans thought that only a Protestant could be president. Scandalous pamphlets distributed without Hoover’s knowledge claimed that if Smith were elected president, he would annul Protestant marriages and make Catholicism the state religion. A circular distributed by the Republican Party promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” For his running mate, Hoover choose Charles Curtis of Kansas. Curtis, a lawyer and politician, was the first Native American to reach a level this high in the federal government. Hoover made only a small number of campaign speeches, leaving the majority of his grass-roots campaigning to his supporters. The Democrats made the repeal of Prohibition a key issue in the platform, claiming the law was not working and needed to be repealed. Hoover was for Prohibition, calling it “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose.” Hoover’s message of continued prosperity pushed him to a sizable win over Smith, gathering 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 87.

Map of electoral vote for 1928 election.
Map of electoral vote for 1928 election.

President of the United States

Herbert Hoover took the oath of office on March 4, 1929, to become the thirty-first president of the United States. At the time of his inauguration America’s prosperity was at an all-time high and the future looked bright for the country. In his inaugural address he boldly stated, "I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.”

Throughout the 1920s the American economy had been robust and most seemed to be better off, from the workers in the factories to executives in the corner offices, prosperity was in full bloom for many. However, there were some ominous clouds on the horizon: many Americans were borrowing more money than they could afford to invest in risky businesses or the ever-growing stock market, and low farm product prices were hurting many farmers. Hoover enacted the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929, which established the Federal Farm Board to ensure that crop prices were stable. The Board encouraged the formation of farm cooperatives and attempted to control farm product surpluses. The prosperity of the 1920s had not spread to the farmers and the administration enacted programs to keep farmers solvent.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929

By the fall of 1929 America’s economic house-of-cards was beginning to tumble. Panic swept through the New York Stock Exchange on October 24 as prices of stock began to take a dramatic downturn. To prevent a market collapse, major bankers and brokers purchased large blocks of blue-chip stock which briefly buoyed the market. Two days later Hoover tried to bring calm to the public, stating, “The fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” The president’s words fell on deaf ears as the stock market plunged again on Tuesday, October 29. The collapse of the stock market went on for months and did not reach a bottom until July 8, 1932, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 41, nearly a 90 percent drop from the all-time high of 381. Though less than one in five Americans owned stocks, the psychological effects of the crash reverberated throughout every corner of the nation. Thus, the downward spiral began a dark period in American history known as the Great Depression.

Chart of Dow Jones Industrial Average Index price during 1929 and 1930.
Chart of Dow Jones Industrial Average Index price during 1929 and 1930.

President Hoover’s Response to the Growing Crisis

Not wasting any time, Hoover sponsored a series of meetings in late November with leaders of business, finance, agriculture, and labor to address the problem of the growing number of unemployed. The leaders left Washington agreeing to keep as many people employed as possible; however, the rapid erosion of their sales and profits soon put thousands out on the streets. As businesses began to fail, their former employees went without pay. Unable to pay their mortgage, the banks forced a record number into foreclosure. With all the bad loans on their books, soon the banks began to fail, and so the economic dominos began to fall. Believing the end of the economic collapse was near, the stock market began to recover, and by June 1930 it made a significant recovery. Hoover attempted to bolster the public’s confidence once again telling them “with continued effort we shall rapidly recover.” The president was not alone in predicting a rapid recovery; many of the experts of the day chimed in with similar words of encouragement. However, the consumer, who was the driving force of the economy, still lacked the money to purchase the goods produced in the factories, which further depressed prices.

The Problem Spreads to the World

In an attempt to protect the hard-pressed farmers from foreign competition, in June 1930 Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff with Hoover’s blessing. The tariff increased the rates charged on raw agricultural products imported into the United States from 38 to 49 percent, with a three percent increase on imported products, the highest in the nation’s history. These new higher rates, which were meant to protect domestic industries, had the effect of stifling trade with Europeans. As the European economies began to suffer, they could not import as many goods from the United States, throwing both continents into economic malaise.

Within two years of the stock market crash, manufacturing volume in the United States had declined to half the level before the crash, and steel plants were only producing a little over ten percent of their capacity. Those within the Hoover administration took a wait-and-see attitude toward the business downturn rather than seeking ways to revive the economy. Though the president encouraged the private sector to spend more money on new construction projects, few companies had the money to oblige. To maintain the financial integrity of the government, Hoover restrained the government from deficit spending to finance new projects to provide work for the unemployed.

Lack of Government Intervention

As the country sank further into a depression, pressure grew on the president and his administration to provide some kind of relief for unemployed Americans. He believed that a government handout or dole robbed people of their initiative to help themselves. Many agreed with Hoover, pointing to the British experiment with a dole after World War I, which had fostered a dependence on government handouts. The governor of New York and the future president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, also agreed with Hoover’s plan. Hoover did receive criticism when in 1931 he refused to authorize the Norris Dam project. The bill, sponsored by Tennessee senator George Norris, provided government funds to expand the power plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, along the Tennessee River. The larger plant would have created many jobs and would have provided hydro-electric power to customers in the region. Hoover shelved the project, claiming it would be a money loser and the paychecks to the workers would be nothing more than a government handout. As a result, Senator Norris became an outspoken critic of Hoover.

In February 1932 the government established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which authorized loans for businesses and banks that were in trouble. The RFC authorized over a billion dollars in loans to approximately 5,000 businesses. Many claimed that the loans were handed out unfairly when some of the loans were given to banks that had RFC members sitting on their boards. Others disliked that the loans were going to companies rather than directly to the unemployed.

Hoover’s Public Image Turns Dark

As the crisis continued to drag on with little real change in the offing, Hoover’s image with the public started to change. No longer was he the Great Humanitarian; rather, he became the voice and the face of the depression. His appearances on the radio came across as cold and unfeeling. The masses of unemployed who roamed the nation looking for work camped in makeshift shantytowns, which they dubbed “Hoovervilles.” As the homeless slept at night they covered themselves with discarded newspapers, which were called “Hoover blankets.” A butchered jack rabbit became a “Hoover hog.” Whether deserved or not, Herbert Hoover was becoming the icon of the depression. This sank his credibility with the nation. Hoover called for the nation to lift itself out of the depression through volunteerism, rather than more government programs; however, charities were already overwhelmed, able to provide only limited support. The nation was facing a crisis unlike anything it had experienced in the past, while the federal government’s response floundered.

Bonus Army marchers (left) confront the police during the summer of 1932.
Bonus Army marchers (left) confront the police during the summer of 1932.

The Bonus Army March on Washington, D.C.

During the summer of 1932, thousands of World War I veterans and their families marched on Washington to demand advancement of the money promised to them in 1924 during the Coolidge administration. For their service in World War I the veterans had been promised money that was to be paid in 1945. While Congress considered the Bonus Bill, which would allow for the payment of the promised bonus now rather than in 1945, the “Bonus Army” of veterans grew in Washington. The veterans walked around the Capitol building in a “Death March” for three days and four nights. Other marchers congregated around the Capitol steps to intimidate the congressmen.

The marchers found shelter in abandoned government buildings in the downtown business district. The large number of veterans living in abandoned buildings and in hastily constructed camps overwhelmed the Washington police. On July 28 a riot broke out and one of the marchers was killed. To maintain order within the city, the president ordered General Douglas MacArthur to remove the squatters from federal buildings and force them back to their camps. MacArthur overreacted and far exceeded Hoover’s orders, moving against the veterans with force. To clear out the veterans the cavalry, with drawn swords, rousted the marchers and their families, while infantrymen used tear gas and six tanks to control the crowds. After the veterans were removed from the buildings, MacArthur sent his troops into the camps. The veterans, acting in disgust at the brutal treatment they had received at the hands of their own government, set their camps on fire.

Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, an aid to MacArthur, was shocked with the treatment of marchers, who later called the incident “a pitiful scene, those ragged, discouraged people burning their own little things.” Once the press pictures of the excessive use of force on the nation’s veterans hit the newspapers, most Americans were outraged at the army’s handling of the situation. The Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt realized the gravity of the situation and commented “Well…this will elect me.” Hoover handled the public relations poorly when he criticized the bonus marchers and failed to publicly reprimand MacArthur’s heavy-handed tactics; rather, he assumed the responsibility for the problem. The Bonus Army incident was a significant event that virtually handed the presidential election to Roosevelt.

The Election of 1932

Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt took very different approaches to the presidential election of 1932. Roosevelt gave an inspiring, hopeful message for the future, whereas Hoover was defensive and uninspiring. On more than one of Hoover’s campaign stops he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes, and there were at least two attempts to sabotage the railroad tracks ahead of his campaign train. In the November election, the voters clearly expressed their displeasure with Hoover, giving Roosevelt 60 percent of the popular vote.

During the “interregnum” period between Hoover’s defeat in early November and Roosevelt’s assumption of the office in early March the economy continued to slide. Hoover remained active up until the end of his term, bickering with president-elect Roosevelt, who seemed unwilling to place the national interest above his personal politics. With so many business failings and a multitude of farm and home mortgages going unpaid hundreds of banks began to fail. Hoover left the office of the president a lonely and embittered man, shunned by many former friends.

Retirement

Hoover and his wife went into retirement and settled in Palo Alto, California for a time. After remaining out of the public eye for a year he began to speak out about Roosevelt’s New Deal policy, calling it dangerous, warning it would lead to a fascist state. He and his wife worked at the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace, at Stanford University, which he had founded in 1919. As World War II broke out in Europe, Hoover wanted America to keep out of the war. It was not until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor that he supported the war effort.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman put Hoover in charge of distribution of food to the starving war ravaged people of Europe. Later, Truman put Hoover to work as head of a commission to reorganize the executive branch of government to reduce waste. The commission came up with nearly 300 recommendations that were approved by Congress in 1947. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, he led another commission with the same purpose. In addition, the former president served as chairman of the Boys’ Cubs of America for eight years. On his eighty-eighth birthday in 1962 he was honored at the dedication of the Hoover Presidential Library in his hometown of West Branch, Iowa.

On October 17, 1964, the 90-year-old Hoover was struck with a massive internal bleeding episode and lapsed into a coma two days later, dying the next day without regaining consciousness. His funeral was simple without eulogies as befitting with his Quaker family tradition. After the service, his body lay in state for two days at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. In his last will and testament, he left the bulk of his estate, worth millions of dollars, to a trust fund for the benefit of his heirs.

Legacy

Herbert Hoover was a man of great energy and accomplishment, with a sincere commitment to public service, and legendary organizational and engineering skills. He served the nation well as relief director, wartime food czar, commerce department secretary, president, and promoter of the executive branch reorganization; however, he lacked the political skills, charisma, and economic wherewithal to lead the nation through the opening convulsions of the Great Depression, for this he will ever be remembered. Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president John Nance Garner said tellingly of Hoover “I never reflected on the personal character or integrity of Herbert Hoover. I never doubted his probity or his patriotism. In many ways he was superbly equipped for the presidency. If he had been president in 1921 or 1937, he might have ranked with the great Presidents.”

References

  • DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Barnes & Noble Books. 2004.
  • Garraty, John A. (editor) Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1981.
  • Hamilton, Neil A. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. Herbert Hoover. Times Books. 2009.
  • Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
  • Smith, Carter. Presidents Every Question Answered: Everything You Could Possibly Want to Know About the Nation’s Chief Executives. Hylas Publishing. 2005.
  • West, Doug. Herbert Hoover: A Short Biography: Thirty-First President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2020.
  • West, Doug. The Great Depression: A Short History. C&D Publications. 2016.

© 2020 Doug West

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