Smithsonian Adds Collections From Lillian Vernon, Kitchen Table Entrepreneur
Only a handful of women in postwar America crafted a successful business from the ground up. Lillian Vernon (1927–2015) was a self-made millionaire at a time when successful women entrepreneurs and CEOs were almost nonexistent. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is marking Women’s History Month with a donation ceremony celebrating the addition of materials and papers from Vernon to the national collections March 20.
The objects and almost 400 archival materials, including a scrapbook Vernon kept as a teenager, are being donated by her sons, David and Fred P. Hochberg. The collection centers on the original yellow Formica kitchen table from which Vernon launched her enterprise along with early merchandise examples, including a monogrammed girl’s purse and a belt. The papers and audiovisual materials document the rise of her multi-million-dollar catalog business and her philanthropy.
Born Lilli Menasche in Germany, Vernon escaped the Holocaust as a young girl with her family. She took her business moniker from her new hometown of Mount Vernon, New York. In 1951, she was a young, married woman seeking to earn an extra $50 a week to contribute to her family income. Working from her kitchen table, she launched her enterprise selling monogrammed accessories for teenagers. Her first product was a handbag that was manufactured by her father and the one she initially advertised in Seventeen magazine. Her home business eventually grew into a major corporation. The Lillian Vernon Corp. became the first business founded by a woman to be publicly traded on an American stock exchange.
“The table is an evocative piece of material culture that speaks to female entrepreneurship and the “second shift,” or running a business while simultaneously running a household,” said Kathleen Franz, project director for the “American Enterprise” exhibition and chair of the museum’s Work and Industry Division.
A kitchen table provides the ultimate workspace for women. From there, Vernon could process orders, serve dinner and keep an eye on her kids. In fact, the tabletop still has a few pencil marks on the surface made by Fred when he was young.
“Boys, where the focus of their young life is the automobile, often start their business in their family’s garage, and that image resonates with the public,” said Fred P. Hochberg. “It’s time to also celebrate the women who start their businesses at their kitchen table.”
Vernon spent the first year of her business fulfilling orders and seeking new products. The monogrammed personalization and her niche marketing via direct mail were Vernon’s catalog business innovations. By the 1990s, the business had grown into the tens of millions of dollars with multiple catalogs. It was sold in 2003.
In October 2023, the objects will go on view within the Consumer Era (1940s–1970s) section of the museum’s “American Enterprise” exhibition in the Mars Hall of American Business, which immerses visitors in the dramatic arc of labor, power, wealth, success and failure. Vernon’s story will be presented with that of advertising pioneer and civil rights activist Byron Lewis who founded UniWorld Group. Vernon’s scrapbook may be found here, and the Archives Center has provided a Lillian Vernon Collection Finding Aid.
“American Enterprise” features a number of women entrepreneurs in the exhibition’s chronological biography wall, including Madam C.J. Walker, beauty entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Estée Lauder and contemporary businesswomen such as Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm, and Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily except Dec. 25, between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, PK–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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