The Catalog Connoisseur: Lillian Vernon Is Born

Lillian Vernon became a household name at a time when women were not even supposed to work outside the home. From the humble beginnings of an immigrant family, Vernon started a business in the kitchen of her small home and grew it to be one of the most well-known multi-million dollar companies in the U.S as well as the first female-owned company to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. Today, the Lillian Vernon Corporation earns almost $300 million in revenues, has over 4,500 employees and continues to be one of the country’s leading catalog retailers.

Lillian Menasche was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1929. She was the daughter of wealthy, upper class German Jews, but would not know a life of comfort for very long. The Menasche family was forced to leave behind their impressive home and successful business and begin anew when they moved to Amsterdam, Holland. It was the beginnings of World War II and Hitler’s Nazis had taken control of the country. In 1933, after their property was confiscated, the Menasche family took refuge in Amsterdam. Four years later, they brought what little they had left with them and settled in New York City, hoping to start a new life for themselves.

With the promise of a fresh start, Menasche enrolled in New York University. She dropped out after two years in order to get married. In 1951, at the age of 22, Menasche became Lillian Menasche Hochberg and found herself pregnant soon thereafter. Four months into her pregnancy, she grew restless and bored just staying at home with little to do. She watched her husband go to work every day at his family’s dry-goods store, where he was earning $75 per week. With her growing family, she decided to come up with a business plan to help supplement her husband’s earnings.

Menasche was a young and pregnant bride determined to make a contribution to her family’s income. She launched the Lillian Vernon Corporation from the yellow Formica kitchen table in her home, taking its name from Mount Vernon, the New York City suburb where she lived with her husband. She took $2,000 of the money they had received in wedding gifts and, using $495 took out an advertisement in Seventeen magazine. After spending hours looking through ads in Seventeen and Vogue, Vernon decided to try and sell matching handbags and belts for teenaged girls, which could be personalized with two initials. The ad took up just one-sixth of the page but it might have well been the whole magazine for the impact that it would have.

After just one week, Vernon nervously asked her husband if she had received any orders. $495 was a lot of money at that time and both had been worried about such a large gamble. But, Vernon’s gimmick worked. Her husband replied, “No, you got fifty.” With that, the rest became history. Those 50 orders allowed her to quickly expand her business and within one year, Vernon had over $32,000 in sales. It wasn’t only her company that had changed. “What I didn’t realize at the time was that I, too, had been transformed,” recalls Vernon. “I had become an entrepreneurial businesswoman.”

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