Rosenthal, Ida Cohen (1886–1973)
Rosenthal, Ida Cohen (1886–1973)
Russian-born American manufacturing executive and founder of Maidenform, Inc. Born Ida Kaganovitch in Rakov, Russia, on January 9, 1886 (one source cites 1889); died of pneumonia in New York City on March 29, 1973; eldest of four girls and three boys of Abraham Kaganovitch (a Hebrew scholar) and Sarah (Shapiro) Kaganovitch, who changed the family name to Cohen after immigrating to the United States; married William Rosenthal (a manufacturer and designer), on June 10, 1906 (died 1958); children: Lewis Rosenthal (1907–1930); Beatrice Rosenthal Coleman (b. 1916).
Born in 1886 in Rakov, Russia, near Minsk, Ida Cohen Rosenthal left her family and her homeland at the age of 16 and moved to Warsaw, Poland. There, she worked as a dressmaker while studying mathematics and Russian in the evenings. In 1904, she joined her sister Ethel and immigrated to the United States to escape the threat of the tsarist regime. Her parents joined them and their other children in the United States in 1909, and her father and three brothers eventually organized A. Cohen & Sons of New York City, wholesalers of clocks, silverware, and cut glass.
When Ida first arrived in the United States, she opened her own small seamstress shop in Hoboken, New Jersey. On June 10, 1906, she married William Rosenthal, one of the early ready-to-wear dress manufacturers, and he joined her in the management of the shop. Hoping to capitalize on the growing demand for ready-to-wear clothes, the Rosenthals moved their shop to Washington Heights, New York, in 1918, and, as the company began to prosper, ultimately employed some 20 seamstresses.
In the early 1920s, Ida's friend Enid Bissett persuaded her to become a partner in a dress shop in Manhattan. The women realized that customers expected fashions to fit, regardless of their own body shape, and the short, flat flapper dresses popular in the 1920s certainly revealed many body types. Ida tackled the challenge by addressing the issue of shape rather than dress. She began to make a simple two-cup container designed specifically for each customer's breasts, which gave support without crushing the chest, and included them with each dress purchase. Not only did this "gimmick" improve initial sales, but customers also quickly realized that their personal "brassieres" made all outfits fit more neatly, and they eagerly returned to buy more. (Prior to Rosenthal's invention, women for the most part had depended on painfully tight corsets or clothing to support their breasts, although in 1914 Caresse Crosby had patented a "backless brassiere" made mostly out of two handkerchiefs.)
Ida and her partner soon realized the niche market they had discovered, and in 1923, with an initial investment of $4,500, the two women incorporated the Maiden Form Brassiere Company. (The name would be changed to Maidenform in 1960.) Ida's husband William was a gifted designer and amateur sculptor, and by 1924 he had again joined his wife in business. He focused his talents on the complex puzzle of designing a system for mass-producing brassieres for all sizes and shapes of women, and it was he who established the precursors to the modern A-, B-, C-, and D-cup sizes. Less than 15 years later, the company's gross earnings were over $4.5 million per year; by the mid-1960s, gross earnings had increased to some $40 million.
Not quite five feet tall, Ida Rosenthal was the commanding force in the Maidenform business and held sway by commanding others to sit when addressing her. As she aptly described herself in Time in October 1960, "Quality we give them. Delivery we give them. I add personality." She was treasurer and director of sales and advertising while her husband handled design and production, particularly in the company's formative years, and served as company president. When Enid Bissett was forced to retire in the 1940s due to health reasons, the Rosenthals remained the principal managers of the company, and Ida herself assumed the presidency after her husband died in 1958. An observer of the company once remarked in Fortune magazine, "Mrs. R. knows everything about the business."
Rosenthal's boundless energy never wavered. She capitalized on the trend in fashion in the 1930s which, unlike the boyish look of the 1920s, emphasized women's figures, and later she ensured that Maidenform received priority in obtaining materials during World War II. In the 1960s, she spent much of her time visiting Maidenform's interests in over 100 countries, and oversaw the company's expansion into sportswear in 1961. In 1963, she visited the Soviet Union as a member of an industrial study exchange team and was excited about the nascent market opportunities she saw there. At 80, she still made at least two overseas business trips each year.
Rosenthal was a director of the Bayonne (New Jersey) Industrial YMCA and of the Bronx Lebanon Medical Center, and was an active member of the Anti-Defamation League. With her husband, she founded Camp Lewis, a Boy Scout camp in New Jersey, established New York University's Judaica and Hebraica Library, and was an important contributor to the establishment of Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. After her retirement, Rosenthal's daughter Beatrice Coleman took over Maidenform, which over 80 years after its founding remains a large and profitable business. Rosenthal died in New York City in 1973, at age 87.
Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.
Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: New American Library, 1976.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.
Lisa S. Weitzman , freelance writer, Cleveland, Ohio