Ida Cohen Rosenthal
1886 – 1973
Ida Cohen Rosenthal, in partnership with her husband, not only reinvented the modern bra, but launched the company that became the world’s largest bra manufacturer. Born on January 9, 1886, in Rakov, Russia, Ida was the eldest of the seven children of Abraham and Sarah (Shapiro) Kaganovich (changed to Cohen when the family immigrated to the United States). Her father was a scribe, and her mother ran a small general store. As a girl, Ida was apprenticed to a dressmaker. At age sixteen, she moved to Warsaw, where she worked and took classes in Russian and mathematics.
Returning to Rakov, Ida met and fell in love with William Rosenthal, son of Solomon and Sarah (Botwinick) Rosenthal. His father was a teacher and collector of Hebrew books. Ida and William became active in the socialist movement, which drew them to the attention of the local police. Then, in 1905, facing the prospect of being drafted to fight Japan, William decided the time had come to leave for America. A few months later, Ida joined him.
Setting up shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, Ida Rosenthal supported herself as a dressmaker. In 1906, she and William were married. In 1907, their son Lewis was born; Beatrice followed nine years later. The Rosenthals formed a successful business partnership that lasted until William’s death in 1958. They worked together in Ida’s dress shop, moving it to Manhattan in 1918. In 1921, the Rosenthals began working with Enid Bissett, who had a shop called Enid Frocks. Fashions of the day demanded a boyish look, so early brassieres were designed to flatten the figure. But for many women, this was not a flattering style. Enid cut apart one of the “bandeaus” then in fashion, and made a brassiere for a fuller figure. William improved on her idea, designing brassieres in different sizes, and the modern bra was born. At first they were given away with the dresses sold in the shop, but when demand for the brassieres increased, the Enid Manufacturing Company was set up to make them. In 1930, the Maiden Form Brassiere Company was founded. Enid was soon forced to withdraw because of ill health. In 1960, the company name was changed to Maidenform, Inc., to conform with the trade name of the company’s product.
The company grew more successful every year. William was president, overseeing design and production, and Ida handled the financial side of the business, often traveling to visit the stores that carried their products. In 1949, a copywriter for a New York ad agency created the slogan used in the now-famous “I dreamed” ads. The ads began with “I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra,” but also featured women in less traditional roles, such as winning an election and going to work.
When William died in 1958, Ida became president. A year later she became chair of the board, and her son-in-law, Joseph Coleman, took over the presidency. Suffering a stroke in 1966, Ida was no longer able to actively run the company, and Beatrice succeeded her husband upon his death in 1968. Ida Rosenthal died in New York City on March 28, 1973. Today, the company is run by Elizabeth Coleman, Beatrice’s daughter.
Ida and William Rosenthal were involved in many Jewish causes, such as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the United Jewish Appeal. In 1942, they presented Solomon Rosenthal’s collection of Hebrew books to New York University, establishing the William and Ida Rosenthal Collection. A foundation established ten years later, in honor of Ida Rosenthal, ensured that a librarian would be paid to care for the collection. In 1943, they established Camp Lewis for the Boy Scouts of America, in memory of their son, who had died in 1930.
Always independent and willing to take chances, Ida Cohen Rosenthal was a business leader at a time when women were not easily accepted in leadership roles. She and her husband left an impressive record of innovation and success in the world of women’s fashion.
Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women (1976); Catalogue of the William and Ida Rosenthal Collection of Judaica and Hebraica including the Solomon Rosenthal Hebraica Collection, New York University Library of Judaica and Hebraica (1955); Great Lives from History: American Women (1995); “I Dreamed I Was A Tycoon in My...” Time 76 (October 24, 1960): 92; “Maidenform’s Mrs. R.” Fortune 42 (July 1950): 75-76; Morris, Michele. “The Mother Figure of Maidenform,” Working Woman 12 (April 1987): 82+; National Cyclopedia of American Biography 57 (1977): 339-340; NAW modern; Obituary. NYTimes, March 30, 1973, 42:2; Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Greg Ptacek. Mothers of Invention. From the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas (1988); WWWIA 5.