This article is the last in a series on First Ladies and ancestral identities. It began with Michelle Obama and has included Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Harding, Pat Nixon, Hillary Clinton and Edith Wilson.
In 1953, when the White House unveiled the hot, new holiday cookie of the season for the nation’s finicky food columnists to sample, it wasn’t the taste of it which had their reading glasses sliding off their nose – it was the sound of it. And the way it was spelled. It was no gingerbread drop or molasses bar. It wasn’t even close to a harwick hermit. It was a Spritzbaaken.
What’s a Spritzbaaken?
The breezy new First Lady shrugged her shoulders at the Chief Usher, then chirped that it meant “cookie” in Swedish, and it was her grandmother’s personal recipe – from Sweden.
“Oh, a Swedish Christmas cookie, then.” She smiled back at him -firmly. “No. Spritzbaaken.”
Driven by threats and fears of bias, bigotry and racism, there have been untold numbers of Americans with roots in every foreign country who might have felt the need to exaggerate, fabricate, alter or hide their family’s origins – (including some First Ladies whose stories have been part of this series). Then there have been those who never found self-identity a complicated question, regardless of race or one’s ancestral origins. One First Lady, Mamie Doud Eisenhower, was among them.
Although in her mid-70s by the time her son-in-law became President in 1953, Elvira Carlson Doud, daughter of Swedish immigrants, was very much a presence in the White House. In the meticulously engaging biography she wrote about her grandmother, Mrs. Ike, Susan Eisenhower detailed of the First Lady’s family immigration story from Sweden to Iowa. She described her great-grandmother as being, “a first-generation American whose ties to Sweden were still very much intact.”
Mamie Eisenhower’s grandfather, Severin Carl Jeremiasson, was from Dagos Sojen, in Halland County, Sweden, although sources give the year as either 1841 or 1848. From a farming family, and having worked as a confidential messenger for a wealthy family, Severin was married to Johanna Mari Andersdotter, from Fjarar, Sweden, and they had a son named Carl Rudolph – who would be nicknamed Charlie in America. Its speculated that, in 1868, crop failures led Severin to temporarily leave his wife and son behind in Sweden, and immigrate to the U.S., where he landed in Boston. There he changed his name to Carlson, following a Swedish tradition of appropriating one’s first name and adding on “son.” He first found work across the border, in Canada, but within months he soon headed south again and then west, to the small but growing town of Boone, Iowa, a thriving community of Swedish immigrants. After renting a small farm and living in a boardinghouse, Severin obtained steadier employment at a flour mill. Using his saved earnings, he paid for the Atlantic crossing of his wife and son in April of 1869, and they joined him in Boone.
Severin eventually bought the mill where he worked, with Charlie, renaming it Carl Carlson & Son. Also working as a railroad mechanic, Charlie died in a sudden, freak accident in 1895. Only three of the family’s seven children lived into later adulthood: Mamie’s mother Elivira Mathilde (born in 1878), her aunt Eda, and her uncle Joel. Sponsoring the immigration of Mari’s nephew Carl, they raised him as an adopted son and took pride in his sober, hard work.
Carl Carlson’s flour mill grew enormously successful. Guided by their intense religious and work ethics, the Swedish families who settled in Boone seemed to flourish financially more quickly than many other immigrants who settled in crowded urban areas and had to compete for even low wages. Charles Ericson from Vimmerby, Småland, for example, founded the City Bank of Boone in 1872 and the public library in 1901, and went on to serve six terms in the state senate and helped establish Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
Since working in the harsh winters of Iowa were not unlike the conditions many rural Swedes were accustomed to, railroad agents and work contractors especially sought immigrants from there to settle the Midwestern state. The town of Stanton there was the first permanent settlement, in 1845. Boone, located in an area called Bishop Hill, had been the second.
Another reason for Iowa settlement by succeeding generations of extremely pious Swedish immigrants was the influence of a renowned Lutheran minister, Reverend Bengt Magus Halland, who encouraged them to join the congregation of Swedish Evangelicals he established in a region that would be named after him. Boone’s Swedish Evangelical Free Church, founded in 1884, and its Frikyrkans Ålderdoms Hem (home for the aged), founded in 1912, were both laid with cornerstones engraved in Swedish.
The small and later enlarged one-story Carlson home had a religious severity to it. Twice each day there were rounds of prayers and readings from the Swedish Bible. Mamie’s son, John Eisenhower, long years later could recall being taken there for Sunday services by his pious great-aunt Eda and the severity with which the minister castigated congregants for even going to the movies. Unlike Eda, however, Elvira chafed at the harshness of a life lived by the rules of Swedish Evangelical Church. In 1894, she married the entrepreneurial John Doud, who was neither Swedish nor Evangelical. Doud’s family in Rome, New York had a thriving wholesale grocery enterprise; coming to the Midwest, he ventured into the region’s burgeoning meatpacking industry. A year after marrying Elvira (who soon assumed the nickname of “Min” or “Minnie”) he bought his father-in-law’s mill. The young couple bought their first home on Carroll Street, and it was there that their second of four daughters was born in 1896. (http://www. mamiesbirthplace.homestead.com),
Although christened as Mamie Geneva in the Swedish church of her grandparents, the young girl felt stifled by its restrictiveness. Just nine months old when her parents relocated to the larger Iowa town of Cedar Rapids, Mamie nevertheless made frequent trips to stay with her grandparents in Boone. She later recalled, “After we’d been in the Swedish church with grandma and grandpa, which of course we couldn’t understand, we’d come home and all we could do was sit on the steps and watch the people go by. We couldn’t play cards. We couldn’t do anything…it was awful.”
Elivera Carlson Doud seemed to have determined to what degree her own Swedish parentage would influence her daughters. While she would continue to speak Swedish in the home of her parents and with her sister Eda, for example, she didn’t teach the language to Mamie and her sisters. Although the Carlsons prominently placed a framed picture of the Swedish royal family in their home, Mamie was also told with pride the story of her father’s English ancestors, who’d settled in Connecticut. And while her parents relocated the family to Denver when she was still young, Iowa was always home for her. In fact, as she aged into her later adulthood, she admittedly romanticized her childhood times there with the Carlson clan. Once she saw the Broadway musical The Music Man and then, subsequently, the 1962 feature film version, it became her favorite. “I’ve convinced myself that it’s Boone!” she told the show’s writer Meredith Wilson about the play and film’s opening sequence which introduced audiences to “Iowa ways,” adding that it captured both the warmth yet sternness of its residents. Here is a clip of the very musical sequence Mrs. Eisenhower was referring to:
Still speaking Swedish and maintaining cultural customs at home, Elivera Carlson Doud and her brother Joel Carlson were both alive at the time Eisenhower became President. The First Lady insisted they both remain central figures in the First Family’s life, conveying in press photos the rare visual impression of a strong fourth generation when the clan gathered for vacations and holidays.
Since her mother had also long been a member of the American Swedish Heritage Foundation, once Mamie Eisenhower became First Lady, she invited leaders of the organization to come meet with her in the White House on November 23, 1954.
During the group’s visit, they presented Mamie with handicraft objects, which had been made in Sweden, including a large glass bowl and a certificate of her own lifetime membership in the American Swedish Heritage Foundation.
Telling them how her mother still read Swedish-language newspapers and books and spoke the native tongue, the First Lady spoke with familiarity about the foods, holidays and other cultural customs she’d learned from her immigrant grandparents, embracing what was obviously part of her identity, but hardly defining her entire sense of self.
There had never been a similar type of event ever previously hosted by a President or First Lady. The press treated the event as one not atypical of many others she hosted yet in a simple and small way, it was a bit of a remarkable gathering, especially in an age when McCarthyism was aroused at the suggestion that a political figure had sympathies for any institution but the most ” American” and many immigrant families were still seeking to lose any association with their ancestral origins. Perhaps because she treated the reception as routine, so too did the press. In fact, in news coverage at the time, no reporter even drew a parallel to the fact that, just the next day, the President hosted a working luncheon with the Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander.
Five months before leaving office, at a July 27, 1960 breakfast meeting with the Republican National Committee in Chicago, Ike fired one of his last verbal missiles in the Cold War, regarding what was then feared to be the slippery slope towards from socialism to communism: “Only in the last few weeks, I have been reading quite an article on the experiment of almost complete paternalism in a friendly European country. This country has a tremendous record for socialistic operation, following a socialistic philosophy, and the record shows that their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably and I think they were almost the lowest nation in the world for that. Now, they have more than twice our rate. Drunkenness has gone up. Lack of ambition is discernible on all sides.” Since he’d refused to name the nation he was referring to, however, there was no national outrage in Sweden. Two years later, as a former President and First Lady, Ike and Mamie sailed the Atlantic to make a lengthy and relaxing journey of European nations. During their time in Sweden, Mamie Eisenhower typically made no speeches, but Ike did tell the Swedish press how excited they were to be in, “the country my wife proudly points to as the birthplace of her maternal grandparents.”
If she made only one visit to the land where her grandparents had come from, she made annual visits to the place where they settled.
Even after Elivira’s death in 1960, and then Ike’s death nine years later, Mamie Eisenhower took the railroad or was driven in a Cadillac due west from her Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farmhouse across several state lines and straight into the heartland where she tayed for up to a week at a time in Boone, Iowa, just to visit her Uncle Joel who still lived, well into his 90s.
She never characterized herself by regionalism, having lived in Iowa, Colorado, Georgia, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Texas.
While being a wife was the role which dictated most of her life’s choices, the public never recognized that the energy she expended as her elderly mother’s daughter, her son’s mother and her grandchildren’s “Mimi” also consumed her.
Despite her absolutism of faith, she never felt the need to publicly declare she was Christian, let alone what sect she followed.
She despised presumptions made about her based on the year of her birth, at any given point in her life.
Intensely patriotic but not nationalistic, she never introduced herself as American, or English – or Swedish.
When reporters clamored around her at a reception the week Ike’s presidential nomination launched her into global headlines, she was asked what people should call her and how she defined herself.
Fighting back a laugh as the press grasped at labels, she quipped, “Just, Mamie.”
- Ike, Irving, Mamie & Merman: The Hit Song Which Elected a President (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Historic Eisenhower Cards Add Star Power to 2012 Americana Heroes & Legends (paniniamerica.wordpress.com)
- Pat Nixon: First-Generation German-American & Her Lincoln Assassination Link (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Michelle Obama’s Hamburger and How First Ladies Play a Role in the Politics and Pop Culture of Presidential Food, Part II (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Road to Michelle Obama’s Convention Speech: The First Ladies & Candidates’ Wives Before Her (carlanthonyonline.com)
- BOIL ORDER: Main Fixed But Boone Still Under Boil Order (whotv.com)
- Jackie Kennedy as Icon: A Pop Culture Big Bang, Part Two (carlanthonyonline.com)