"New York Times" profiles entrepreneur Lillian Vernon
April 26, 1978
In a New York Times profile published on April 26, 1978, Lillian Vernon was described as "the first lady of mail order catalogues," a designation she had earned through more than two decades of entrepreneurship and steady growth of her eponymous business.
Born Lilly Menasche in Leipzig, Germany, in 1927, Lillian Vernon fled with her family first to Amsterdam and then to New York to escape Hitler. In the U.S., her father manufactured leather goods, which would become the base of Vernon's first foray into mail-order.
Married and pregnant, Vernon began the business that would become Lillian Vernon, Inc., in 1951. She took $495 of her wedding gift money to place an advertisement for personalized belts and handbags in Seventeen magazine. Her father's company manufactured the belts and bags, and Vernon embossed, packaged, and shipped them. The ad brought in over $32,000 worth of sales, and Vernon's company was born. She mailed her first catalogue two years later.
Taking monogramming as its trademark, and catering mainly to women, Lillian Vernon mail-order grew rapidly, generating $200,000 in sales in 1956, the year Vernon opened her first manufacturing plant. By 1990, sales had risen to $238 million, and the mailing list had grown to 17 million names.
After pioneering her successful mail-order business, Vernon continued to keep the company at the forefront of commercial changes. She began opening retail outlets in 1985, and went online a decade later. Hers was also the first woman-owned business to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. The company continues to introduce new catalogs regularly, and now produces special lines of items for children, teens, and gardening, as well as its traditional products for the home.
Vernon has used her wealth to support over 500 charities, and has been recognized by, among others, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, which awarded her its National Hero Award. She has also received the NAACP Medal of Honor, and has been inducted into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1997, she was named one of 50 leading women entrepreneurs by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. Though she no longer embossed items herself, Vernon was active as the CEO of her company and as its main spokesperson until 2006.
See also: On the Map: Hometown of Lillian Vernon's First Mail Order Business.
Sources: www.harrywalker.com/speakers_template.cfm?Spea_ID=224&SubcatID=195; www.lillianvernon.com; New York Times, April 26, 1978, May 24, 1998; Jeannette Oppedisano, Historical Encyclopedia of Women Entrepreneurs: 1776 to the Present (Westport, CT, 2000); Lillian Vernon, An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America's Greatest Direct-Mail Businesses (New York, 1996).