The Jewish Women’s Archive reminded us to celebrate on Jan. 9 the birth in 1886 near Minsk in Russia of Ida Kaganovitch (later Cohen). At age 16 Ida went off to Warsaw to work as a dressmaker and study math and Russian in the evenings. At age 18, she immigrated to New Jersey with her sister Ethel. Being impecunious made her uncomfortable, so she bought a Singer sewing machine on installments and opened a shop in Hoboken as a seamstress. In 1906 she married William Rosenthal, already an early ready-to-wear manufacturer. By 1918 they had moved the shop to Washington Heights and employed 20 seamstresses.
Business boomed during WWI, and in the 1920s Ida and William and their new business partner Enid Bisset opened a custom dress shop, naming it Enid Frocks. Now, this was the time of the flappers and the look was “boy form.” But the shop owners didn’t like making dresses to fit over bound-up ladies’ chests. So they invented a new undergarment to support and separate, differentiating the appearance of their dresses from those “boy forms.” They called it “maiden form.”
The new company was originally the Enid Manufacturing Company, and they gave away their undergarments when folks bought individually-made dresses. Soon, though, the popularity of the underwear out-stripped outerwear and they gave up dressmaking. In 1928, they sold 500,000 units of their undergarments. In 1930, the company was renamed the Maiden Form Brassiere Company. By the end of the 1930s, their products were in department stores around the world. Ms. Bisset retired, and the Rosenthals ran the company together, with William working on design and creating new products (for soon-to-be and new mothers, for instance) and inventing the sizing system still used today, while Ida ran the business including union negotiations and creating assembly-lines. (In 1930 their son Lewis, born 1907, passed away; their daughter Beatrice had been born in 1916.)
It was Ida who made the company the first intimate-apparel company to advertise widely. In 1949, they launched their ad campaign, “I dreamed I …_______… in my Maidenform bra,” showing such possibilities as “drove a chariot,” “‘went to blazes’ as a firefighter,” “won the election,” and “barged down the Nile.” The campaign ran for 20 years, right into the bra-burning generation. Ida ran the company with a firm hand. Under five feet tall, she commanded others to sit when addressing her. Time magazine in 1960 quoted her, “Quality we give them. Delivery we give them. I add personality.”
Ida oversaw business in over 100 countries, and in 1963 visited the Soviet Union in an industrial study exchange team. She was active in nonprofits, as well, and she and William founded Boy Scout Camp Lewis in NJ, and established NYU’s Judaica and Hebraica Library, among many other accomplishments. (Her father and brothers also would become successful in A. Cohen & Sons in New York, selling clocks, silverware, and cut glass.) William Rosenthal passed away in 1958, and Ida became the president and later also chair of the board. After a stroke in 1966 she stayed on as honorary chair until she passed away on March 29, 1973. Their daughter Beatrice inherited the company, which is now run by Ida’s granddaughter Elizabeth Coleman.
Your correspondent would like to think Ida might have been open to installing a pocket or three.