Like many pieces of household furniture, this table bears the wear and tear caused by children making their mark on the world. Its small size says something about the compact apartment in Mount Vernon, New York, that once housed a family of four and a blossoming business.

In her early 20s with plans to start a family and housework to be done, Lillian Vernon could have accepted life as a housewife, but instead, the young woman sat down at this small Formica kitchen table in early 1951 and created a mail-order business that would grow into a catalog empire with a place on the American Stock Exchange—the first female-owned business to accomplish that feat.

Just a couple of years after leaving college and marrying Samuel Hochberg, Vernon invested $495 from her $2,000 wedding nest egg to place a single ad in Seventeen magazine’s September 1951 issue. Unsure of her gamble, she waited in fear that no one would order the paired and monogrammed purses and belts made by her father’s leather manufacturing business. Then, orders began flooding in.

In just six weeks, she accumulated $16,000 in sales and doubled that by the end of the year, ultimately selling 6,450 bags and belts. She handled all of the administrivia herself. While sitting at her kitchen table, she used two fingers to type mail-order slips and handled incoming payments in the form of checks, money orders and cash. She couldn’t afford an adding machine, so on Friday mornings her banker lent her the use of his. She personally embossed initials on each item sold.

Lillian Vernon, Enid Cutler, c. 1970
Lillian Vernon, Enid Cutler, c. 1970 NPG, gift of David C. Hochberg and Fred P. Hochberg

Vernon prided herself in having intuition about what would sell to her audience, which originally was young women but later expanded to women of all ages. She called her 1996 memoir An Eye for Winners to celebrate her ability to recognize items that would attract customers. Over the years following her expenditure of $495, she built a loyal catalog audience and a company valued at $60.5 million when it was sold in 2003.

“The print catalog was a way of building a relationship with her consumers, her buyers.” says Kathleen Franz, a curator at the National Museum of American History. “Pioneering that form is why she’s in the museum’s ‘American Enterprise’ exhibition, because it was a very different kind of format for retail,” that began with merchandise available only by mail-order. Just this year, the museum celebrated the addition to its collection, made by Vernon’s family, of nearly 400 items documenting her career—and the Formica table where she built her business went on view as part of the exhibition.

The business grew over the coming decades, in part because of the ascending influence of the baby boomers. “Within 10 or 15 years, this whole new market of young women is out there, and they have money to spend, unlike a whole previous generation in the 1920s and ’30s,” says Franz. Before the baby boom, the marketing category of “teenager” didn’t really exist, she notes. As this new generation matured, “There was this big group of young women, and they all wanted to be unique. And so, the idea of having something that everybody has, but having your initials on it, was just a real sweet spot.” In the long run, Vernon successfully used her own sense of her audience and direct-mail catalogs to triumph.

Vernon was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1927, as Lilli Menasche. Her life began in an atmosphere of fear and urgency. Her parents were German Jews living in terror of the politically popular Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. When she was 5 years old, the family left the country. After several years in the Netherlands, their fear of Hitler remained. They considered life in the region where Israel exists today. Ultimately, they set their sights on the United States. Her father had made a career in Germany’s lingerie market and pursued other manufacturing fields when the family moved. Her interest in merchandising was a natural outgrowth of her father’s enterprising spirit. As a teenager, she became a candy store salesclerk and a movie usherette. In 1942, she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, one who would soon after lose her only brother, Fred, as he served in the Army during World War II.

Lillian Vernon Monogrammed Purse
Beginning in 1951, Vernon designed and sold monogrammed purses (above, c. 1960), advertising in Seventeen magazine. NMAH

This businesswoman chose her professional moniker based on the Americanized version of her own first name, Lillian, and the simple fact that she lived and worked in Mount Vernon, New York. The business grew so quickly that by 1954 she had to rent three spaces—one to serve as a warehouse, one as a shipping facility and another as a spot where products could be embossed with monograms. At about the same time, her husband, whom she once believed had belittled her ambitions, joined the company as president and drew double her salary as vice president. Soon, they began manufacturing some of their own distinctive products.

Seven years after she placed her first ad, Vernon’s business was selling $500,000 in merchandise annually. The company produced mini-catalogs that were boxed with ordered products, and Vernon soon recognized the value of a catalog versus strictly selling through magazine ads. The full catalog debuted in 1960. It was mailed to 125,000 customers, and most of the 175 featured items cost between $1 and $2.98. Her small catalogs were in sharp contrast to the heavyweight Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs because they were not aimed at every consumer. Instead, Vernon remained faithful to her female audience, and, as a result, companies such as Max Factor, Avon, Revlon and Elizabeth Arden partnered with her to create and sell new products.

On the job, she was more daring than her husband, and, after about 20 years of marriage, growing incompatibility led to divorce. They continued to work together for about a year before splitting the business, with him taking over its wholesale operations that included order fulfillment for other catalog companies.

Vernon took control of the mail-order business, which was then the weakest portion of the company. She liked to sell items that were useful and unique as well as visually appealing. Among her favorites were monogrammed bookmarks that cost only a dollar, a Hurry Door Knocker for families sharing a single bathroom, a little black compact that looked like a telephone dial, homemade cupcake-shaped candles in many colors, gold-filled and sterling rings for only $1, and bobby pins with magnetic closures. Soon after the catalogs launched, each featured a letter from Vernon about her shopping expeditions and newly discovered treasures. The business really began to change in 1967, when the first toll-free numbers made ordering from a catalog even more tempting.

Portable engraving and monogramming machine
With this c. 1950s engraving and monogramming machine, Vernon added the extra personalized touch to her retail products. NMAH

Customer service was important to Vernon. She considered it essential for customers to know that returns were always available. Her favorite example: A woman returned stoneware that she had purchased 20 years earlier. She had never opened the box and received a repayment for the full price—$79.98.

In 1970, the Lillian Vernon Corporation had sales of $1 million in a single year for the first time. Both 1973 and 1974 were boom years, and revenues doubled, reaching $6 million by 1976. Six years later, the company’s revenues topped $60 million. Initially, she limited merchandise to unique items. The wide range of American products available to shoppers led her around the world looking for products that her customers could not buy in the United States. Once the business was fully established, she spent as much as four months a year traveling to trade fairs, logging hundreds of thousands of miles on the road annually.

Much of Vernon’s success, says Franz, was built on women’s tradition of presenting gifts to one another to express gratitude or congratulations. She argues that this “culture of gifting” bolstered the business, because women could order a gift from the catalog, and it would arrive already packaged as a present.

She also believes that Vernon’s personal connection with her customers made a remarkable difference. She characterized Vernon’s siren song in these words: “I’ve shopped the world. I have this great eye. You trust me because I talk to you … whenever this catalog comes, and I’m offering this exclusively. You can’t find it in stores. You can’t find it in other catalogs like Sears or Montgomery Ward’s.”

Perusing a scrapbook that Vernon created in her college years and now in the collections, curators noted the entrepreneur's developing aesthetics that would become part of her catalog style. NMAH

Over the years, Vernon experienced a kind of delight when she discovered famous names among her customers. Frank Sinatra, a cool crooner and actor, bought a monogrammed lint remover, of all things. Other famous purchasers included Betty White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

After 1981, the company abandoned one of its identifying traits and began to feature some items that were not specially selected but were overstocked and could be sold cheaply. That was a big decision. Though Vernon was happy to have both of her sons spend time in the business, the last two decades of the 20th century would prove difficult. While the company became publicly traded in 1987 and had record sales in 1988, increasing competition created problems that led to talk of selling the company in the mid-1990s. It was sold to Ripplewood Holdings, a private equity firm, in 2003, and five years later, Current USA bought it. Today, items continue to be sold under Lillian Vernon’s name online.

When Vernon died in 2015, her New York Times obituary traced her business career and concluded that “her niche was whimsical, low-cost items that could be monogrammed—at no charge—in days rather than weeks.”

So, when Americans read about women’s great successes in the 20th century, why is so little heard about Lillian Vernon? “I think she really flew under the radar,” says Franz. Because her papers were not housed in a library, writing the story of her life was a great challenge. Nowadays, with many of her records and artifacts moving into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, telling her story will be simpler. In addition to the Formica table that served as her first desk, the collection includes recordings of TV appearances she made.

Another special artifact is a college scrapbook Vernon compiled. It shows her developing aesthetics that would mature as part of her catalogs. The scrapbook is in fragile condition, but pages have been digitized.

Over the years, Vernon shared her wealth with New York University, which she had attended for two years before marrying Hochberg. With her support, the university has instituted the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, a graduate fellowship, and the Lillian Vernon Distinguished Writer-in-Residence professorship. Alongside her business acumen, Vernon’s love of writing served her throughout her career. For the first 16 years of her business, she wrote all of the catalog copy herself, charming readers with her personal recommendations.

“I love writing so much—ad copy, notes, stories, headlines,” she wrote in her memoir. “My friends and family question whether I have ink in my veins.”

The permanent exhibtion "American Enterprise" is on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

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