Today's Reading

After school and on weekends, Esty helped out at her father's hardware store. Her special job was creating the window displays that would attract customers. For the Christmas holiday season, she would decorate a hammer or a set of nails with extravagant bows and gift wrap, then place it under an artificial tree. Customers responded, and she learned an important lesson. "Packaging required special thought," she would write. "You could make a thing wonderful by its outward appearance. There may be a big difference between lipstick and dry goods, between fragrance and doorknobs, but just about everything has to be sold aggressively."

She also helped at another family business, a neighborhood department store run by Fanny Rosenthal (the wife of Esty's older half brother, Isidor Rosenthal) and Fanny's sister, Frieda Plafker. Plafker & Rosenthal was, my mother remembered, "my gateway to fancy. It was Dress-Up Land for me. I loved to play with the beautiful clothes, touch the smooth leather gloves, pull the lace scarves around my shoulders." (As a little boy, I used to play hide-and-seek with my cousins in the shoe storeroom in the back.)

It was also an education in salesmanship. Like most department stores at the time, Plafker & Rosenthal was predominantly a woman's world. Women came as much for the fun of ogling the goods and the thrill of buying them as to meet with their friends in a comfortable setting that was a combination of emporium, playground, and sorority clubhouse. At Plafker & Rosenthal, female customers were waited on by saleswomen who literally spoke their language; Fanny and Frieda could chat in Yiddish with Jewish shoppers and rattle off idiomatic Neapolitan to their Italian clientele. They kept the store open six and a half days a week and stocked it with everything from menorahs to Communion dresses.

My mother learned how to talk to everyone and relished it. With her bubbly personality and genuine interest in women's lives—and their complexions—she fit right in.

As my mother happily immersed herself in an atmosphere created by women for women, she observed what women liked, how they liked it, and how to sell it to them. "I whetted my appetite for the merry ring of a cash register," my mother would write. "The ladies came to buy, and smiled and bought more when I waited on them. I knew it. I felt it. I learned early that being a perfectionist and providing quality was the only way to do business."

My mother learned a valuable lesson at an early age: even though women still couldn't vote, they could run a successful business, make money, and use it to surround themselves with beautiful things.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE MAGIC

Retailing wasn't the only business welcoming to ambitious women. In the years after World War I, two female entrepreneurs were making their mark in the cosmetics industry: Helena Rubinstein and Florence Nightingale Graham, better known as Elizabeth Arden.

Madame, as Helena Rubinstein liked to be called, and Miss Arden, as she liked to be called, couldn't have come from more different backgrounds: the former was one of eight daughters growing up in a cramped Orthodox Jewish household in the Polish city of Krakow; the latter was raised on a small farm in Ontario, Canada, where she bathed once a week on Saturday night before Sunday church and washed her hair once a month. Yet by the time my mother was a teenager, both were on their way to building global business empires, their names etched above chains of beauty salons and on products from powder to perfume to waterproof mascara. At the height of their fame, Madame and Miss Arden were recognized as the richest, most powerful self-made women in the world.

As someone who loved to help women look and feel beautiful, my mother would have had to be blind and deaf and living in a cave not to be aware of how their products were advertised to and used by more and more women. My mother was neither blind nor deaf, and Corona was no cave.

From behind the counter at Plafker & Rosenthal and on the streetcars trundling into Manhattan (the #7 subway line to that part of Queens wouldn't be completed until 1928), my mother saw women spending money on powder, rouge, and lipstick in ways her own mother could never have imagined or condoned. Having successfully stepped into what were traditionally men's jobs during World War I, women were enthusiastically exploring new roles in the postwar professional world. (The number of working women would increase by 25 percent in the 1920s.) They had newfound confidence and, thanks to their earnings, the money to express that confidence through cosmetics.
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