Having won the greatest war of the 20th century, President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 ushered in 8 years of calm and stability not seen in the United States for 50 years and, in the process, opened the Golden Age of Cattleya Orchids. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was the symbol of prosperity and elegance and she loved cattleyas. She was rarely seen in public without her corsage of 2 or 3 cattleya flowers during her husband’s entire two terms.
Her love for cattleyas was so obvious that the Rod McLellan Company of California named an orchid after her. This was only the second time that a U.S. First Lady had been honored with a namesake cattleya (Mrs. Herbert Hoover’s orchid was registered in 1929). Suddenly, the practice of naming an orchid after a First Lady looked like it might even become a tradition.
In the 1950’s, cattleya corsages were worn to nearly every social event from dinners and luncheons to afternoon teas, the theater, opera, and high school dances. Nurseries had trouble keeping up with the demand for flowers and many fortunes were made in the industry. Springtime was especially busy with floral holidays - Easter and Mother’s Day, as well as Proms and June weddings. In selecting a cattleya for Mrs. Eisenhower, McLellan chose a floriferous spring bloomer with a pedigree parentage.
The very first World Orchid Conference was held in 1954 in St Louis and Mr. Rod McLellan, himself, was a speaker. He noted that corsages are always in fashion – “as a wristlet, or on a handbag, on the shoulder or at the waist, and sometimes in the hair.” He was further promoting cut orchids for use in flower arrangements for every room of the house.
The Rod McLellan Co, nicknamed “Acres of Orchids”, was a tremendous operation. Located in South San Francisco, one greenhouse alone held 200,000 cattleya seedlings. The flasking house was filled with countless sterilized glass bottles and had its own Superintendant, Geneticist, and Laboratory Technicians. The extensive mail order catalog featured over a hundred new cattleya hybrids, a line of custom potting materials including Supersoil and Wonderbark, and every imaginable accessory for the hobbyist.
1955 saw the first Rod McLellan public offering of Lc Mamie Eisenhower as full page advertisements appeared in both the American Orchid Society Bulletin and the Orchid Digest magazine. The plant was glamorously portrayed as a painting by local artist Naomi Sandl. The wording of the ad was quite flattering. “This outstanding lavender hybrid with a rich purple lip is so charming we named it in honor of our gracious First Lady (with Mrs. Eisenhower’s permission).”
McLellan continued with their purple breeding lines by combining Lc Mamie Eisenhower with such established species as C intermedia, C mossiae, C labiata, and B digbyana. Lc Mamie Eisenhower was an outstanding display plant as well as a prolific stud. McLellan thought very highly of its First Lady hybrid and, in 1955, charged as much as $75 for select varieties – a hefty sum at a time when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon.
Unlike many U.S. Presidents, Dwight Eisenhower had not been a career politician but rather a 5-star general and war hero during WW2. The Eisenhowers had been married 37 years prior to moving into the White House and were very close. Dwight called his wife “my invaluable, my indispensible,…my lifelong partner.”
Mamie loved to entertain and was a popular hostess. Her specialty was holiday parties, for which she had the White House decorated in the appropriate theme. Just as the Truman’s before them, the Eisenhower’s campaigned by train across the country. Mamie’s own popularity helped to bolster her husband to win two terms as president. On inauguration day, 1953, the new First Lady proudly pinned a cattleya corsage on her lapel and, in so doing, became the best spokesperson cattleyas could ask for.
What will be remembered about Mamie Eisenhower within the orchid community is her true love for cattleya flowers. She glamorized cattleya corsages like no First Lady before or since. Her namesake orchid, Lc Mamie Eisenhower, was a prominent hybrid for its time and, although rare today, remains a historical treasure.