In 1951, when a newly wed and four months pregnant Lillian Hochberg told her husband and friends that she was going to start her own retail business from home, many looked at her in disbelief. But five years later, she launched the first Lillian Vernon catalog with sixteen pages of products. By 1965, she had formed the Lillian Vernon Corporation and posted one million dollars in sales five years later. The next milestone was in 1987, when she took the company public on the American Stock Exchange, becoming the first woman to found a company traded on the exchange. By the 1990s, one out of every four American households received Lillian Vernon catalogs, resulting in approximately five million orders and $240 million in annual sales.
Lilly Menasche was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929. In 1933, her family fled to Amsterdam to escape the dangerous climate for Jews in Germany. Four years later, the Menasches fled again to New York City as the Nazi threat escalated. Lilly learned about running a business and about merchandising from her father, who established a leather goods company when he immigrated to the U.S. When she was old enough, her father sent her on shopping errands, a chore she very much enjoyed. She began her working life at the age of fourteen, taking a job in a candy store and later as a movie theater usherette. While working in the theaters, she was exposed to American films that greatly helped her develop her English.
In 1949, shortly after enrolling in New York University, Lilly married Samuel Hochberg and became pregnant with their first child. She left school and began developing her business plan. With $2,000 of wedding money, she began manufacturing merchandise and purchased ad space in Seventeen magazine, advertising a leather bag and belt she had designed. Though others were incredulous, her father stood by her side and even helped her manufacture her wares. The $495 ad resulted in $32,000 in orders and Vernon Specialties, named after Vernon, N.Y., where Lillian was living at the time, was launched. She adopted the last name Vernon in the 1990s after growing the company and shepherding it to enormous success. Vernon retired in 2003, at the age of seventy-five, and sold the company for $60.5 million. She maintains a stake in the company.
Vernon recognizes that launching such a successful business was no easy task for a woman in the 1950s. In 1966, she published an autobiography, An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America's Greatest Direct-Mail Businesses, in which she describes her personal struggle to become a leading businesswoman and role model in a predominantly male industry. The book also details the role she has played in every aspect of her company’s growth and management. In an interview with Business Know How, Vernon acknowledged the hurdles women have historically faced and explained, “At Lillian Vernon Corporation, I am proud to say that women are given every opportunity to advance and are an integral part of my senior management team.”
Vernon has received numerous awards including induction into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Big Brother/Big Sisters National Hero Awards, and the Gannett Newspapers Business Leadership Award. In 2011, she was honored with the Project Sunshine Award for Philanthropic Leadership. She supports countless charities and non-profit organizations such as the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., and This Close for Cancer Research in Woodbridge, Conn. The Lillian Vernon Foundation has endowed a chair for entrepreneurship at New York University and has funded arts programs, medical research and services for the elderly. Vernon is a member of several boards including those of Lincoln Center, the Virginia Opera, and the Kennedy Center National Committee for the Performing Arts. She currently resides in Greenwich, Conn.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.