Narrator: In 1922, from a basement in New York City, a dressmaker launched a revolution. Ida Rosenthal, an immigrant Russian Jew, fabricated a way to liberate half of America from a form of bondage endured for decades. She made some of the first brassieres... and women never looked back. In the early twentieth century, everything from the American silhouette to the American Dream changed. Like the bra, many of the radical innovations sprang from a roiling source of new ideas, America's immigrants. It took an Englishmen to literally enlighten American cities with electricity and an Italian to give ordinary people access to that "all-American" fuel: money.
Harold Evans, Author "They Made America": These innovators brought a sense of independent thinking. They were in a new society. They just saw things that should be changed and they had ideas and they weren't afraid. And so the immigrants brought a special quality of "fizz" to this society.
Narrator: You may not know their stories, but they made America.
Narrator: San Francisco California, April 18th 1906, Just after 5:00 a.m. The Great San Francisco earthquake lasted just 28 seconds, but felt like an eternity to those who survived it. Hundreds of others perished. Yet the real devastation came later. Uncontrollable fires raged through the city for days. While panicked residents tried to escape, and roving gangs pillaged in the chaos, few noticed a simple fruit dealer making his way with a load of oranges. But all was not as it seemed. Hidden beneath the oranges was $80,000 in cash, silver and gold. The supposed fruit dealer was Amadeo Peter Giannini, the founder of a small new bank, the Bank of Italy. He was trying to protect the hard-earned savings of thousands of immigrant families from looters and the blaze. That night Giannini's ruse would succeed. By dawn he'd arrive at his home in San Mateo and stash the money in the ash trap of the fireplace. Only then could Giannini confront the magnitude of the disaster. Even with the money he'd rescued, fear could trigger a run on the bank that would drive it under. The smoke lifting high into the air from the city in ruins seemed to herald the arrival of the natural enemy of all banks, a loss of confidence.
Evans: The great thing the Giannini created all the time was confidence -- confidence in California, and confidence in individual enterprises, and most of all, confidence in his bank, because banking is nothing but trust. You give money to the bank, and you don't see. I hope they've got my money there, still. The next day he goes down to his bank and it is completely burned to the ground.
Narrator: Giannini had only $80,000 to cover his customers' deposits of $846,000. With parts of the city still ablaze, even the big banks of San Francisco groped for direction.
Felice Bonadio, Biographer: So many banks had their money in vaults in banks that couldn't be opened for weeks, the vaults were so hot, and uh, they didn't know what to do. They had uh, meetings, and, and uh they were, they were in a quandary.
Evans: The government issues a decree that banks shall remain closed. Giannini doesn't observe that. Somehow or other he finds a way of going down to the wharf and putting up a plank on two barrels, and a banner, "Business as usual, open for banking."
Bonadio: And he's going to loan money to people who needed it. In a loud voice he was saying to people "San Francisco is going to come back. It's going to come back."
Narrator:: Giannini's boosterism worked. Instead of a run, people brought in gold they'd hidden under beds. Deposits grew.
Bonadio: The other banks weren't paying out anything. He was paying out. He was helping to rebuild your home. He was helping you to rebuild your business. He, Giannini, the Bank of Italy.
Narrator: The Bank of Italy was in North Beach, one of the largest communities of immigrant Italians in America. It was also one of the hardest hit by the fire and quake. Only 300 of its four thousand buildings survived. But North Beach was rebuilt in less than a year, much faster than other areas. The man behind the success could be easily found in his spanking new Bank of Italy. Giannini sat at a desk out in the open where anyone could talk to him. He had two watchwords -openness and trust.
Bonadio: People adored him, they idolized him. Uh, they, they named their babies after him. A reporter asked, uh, an Italian living in North Beach, about Giannini, and, and he was, and the fellow replied, "Giannini is, is absolutely the greatest. Before Giannini I was a Dago. After Giannini, I was an American."
Narrator: Who was this man who could transform tragedy into opportunity, and Italians into Americans? A. P. Giannini had been born an American...but just barely. His mother carried him in her womb on the trip from Italy. In 1869, his parents journeyed out to California as some of the first passengers on the new Transcontinental railroad. Though they rode the latest in transportation, they held a dream as old as the nation itself, the original American Dream to own their own land. But that dream was changing. Booming industrialization had begun to transform America, into a nation of cities which more and more immigrants called home. While often disease ridden and filthy, cities offered newcomers more economic opportunities. That was true for A.P. Giannini as well. After his father was killed in a dispute over two dollars his family moved to San Francisco. At fifteen, he started work in his step-father's small wholesale fruit and vegetable business on the wharf. It was tough but Giannini was tougher. A big man with a quick head for figures, he built the business into the largest of its kind in the West and earned himself a small fortune. Then sold his stake. At thirty-one, Giannini was bored."There's no one to fight with," he said.
Evans: Giannini could have continued going down to the docks for 40 years, doing a good job; having a reasonable -- he doesn't do that; He takes a risk from the gut.
Narrator: Giannini had married up - the daughter of a rich realtor. When his wife's father died, he took the dead man's seat on the board of a local bank.
Bonadio: He began attending these uh board meetings, uh, and he didn't like what he saw. And he didn't know anything about banking, uh, but he didn't, he didn't like the way they were doing business.
Harold Evans:And he sees how much discrimination there is, not just against the Italians but against anybody who isn't already wealthy. And it offends him...
Bonadio: One afternoon he just lost his temper and he just got up and walked out. And he went over to the office of a friend, and he said "Giocomo, tell me how to start a bank!"
Narrator: He later said, "I might never had gone into the banking business if I hadn't gotten so damn mad." On October 17th, 1904, the Bank of Italy opened its doors for business... in a renovated saloon. It wasn't much to look at. Most banks used marble and brass to create a feeling of confidence. A.P. Giannini felt he had all the brass his bank would need.
Narrator: More than a business opened that day in 1904. This was a revolution. Banking had always been the domain of the wealthy. But Giannini offered savings accounts and loans to "the little fellows" as he called them, the hardworking immigrants he knew so well.
Bonadio: As Giannini once said, uh, you know, he didn't want to be a wholesale bank to the few, he wanted to be a retail bank for the many. And the other bank, Crocker, for example, Anglo California, uh, this is small potatoes. Who wants to deal with a loan of $10, a loan of $25? I mean, uh, it's, it's not worth it. But he thought it was worth it.
Evans:Giannini's great thing is to start saying we're going to open our doors to everybody; we're going to judge loans, not on what they've got in the bank, but what they've got in their soul; what their character is.
Narrator: In the past North Beach Italians needing money turned to family... or risked loan sharks. Now they had a bank of their own to get a loan for a house or small business. Over the years they'd come to depend on it.
Nancy Koehn, Historian, Harvard Business School: Mortgages, savings accounts, loans, all those critical functions, take on much larger importance, as America becomes an urban and industrial place. As America stops being primarily a rural economy and becomes a very different kind of modern economy. And retail banking is in some sense the glue that holds a lot of those things together.
Narrator: The bank for the "Little Fellow" racked up over $700,000 in deposits its first year. But after the Earthquake and Fire - when the bank was only 18 months old and after a narrow escape from ruin in the Financial Panic of 1907-- Giannini wanted to secure his bank's future. His solution was hugely controversial and broke with the deeply rooted American tradition of independent local banks. He would buy banks across the state. If one got into trouble, it could be helped by another. The purchases followed a pattern, most located in areas with Italian immigrants but near other ethnic minorities as well. Then his executives hit the streets.
Bonadio: He had a, a group of people he called his missionaries in the field. Their job was to solicit accounts mostly from Italians. "Every Italian you can find I want his account, I want his deposit." And then he moved on to Yugoslavians, Russians, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, all groups of people who had been left out. He had the Italian department, the Greek department, the Portuguese department, the Spanish department, the Chinese department, the Mexican department. From the outside, you look at the Bank of Italy, you think you're look, you think you're looking at a monolith. You're not. You're looking at a confederation of banks; banks within a bank.
Narrator: Giannini traveled the dusty roads of California, scouting new locations sometimes even dragging his wife and daughter along. He bought banks at fair prices, others he rescued from bankruptcy. But once he found one he wanted, there was no saying "no".
Evans: Giannini is a totally ruthless person. He's driven by this manic energy. The vision that he has is idealistic. The means by which he executes it are questionable.
Bonadio: On one occasion Giannini was trying to buy a bank. Guy didn't want to sell. And so Giannini got in a car with a few of his executives, and they drove to the bank, and he had them start pacing, marking off steps. Uh, finally the bank owner came in, he said, "What, what are you guys doing? What is this all about?" "Oh, he said, that's A.P. Giannini in the car, and he's thinking of putting a branch here opposite this guy's bank, and that's all, that's what this is all about." Well, you know, faced with having to compete with A.P. Giannini or sell, the guy sold. He could put, he could put an awful lot of pressure on you if he wanted to, and he often did.
Narrator: Giannini's banking network kept growing. Chico, Fresno, Oakland, Bakersfield, San Diego. By 1927, he had a chain a thousand miles long, stretching from Oregon to Mexico, with almost 300 branches and more customers than any other US bank. Giannini's faith in the "little fellow" had created a giant.
Bonadio: The accumulated savings of ordinary people, much to the surprise of ordinary people, amounted to an awful lot of money.
Narrator: "Little fellows" all over California had made the Bank of Italy the third largest bank in the nation, and Giannini wasn't done. He put his banks into a giant holding company, Transamerica, a name that captured his new ambition, a nationwide system of branch banks. Then he traveled to New York, purchased a bank, and merged others with it to create the third largest bank in that state - a new eastern anchor for the national empire. That's when the big trouble started.
Evans: Giannini all his life is fighting the establishment: The establishment in the banking community; the political establishment, and thirdly, and most importantly, almost, he's fighting the establishment in Wall Street. They don't like the idea of this man on the West Coast opening up the West Coast and not coming to them for money. I mean, hell, New York's money...
Narrator: Wall Street quickly challenged Giannini's control over his New York bank. Then as that struggle turned into an out and out war with the most powerful financial forces in the East, his health failed.
Bonadio: Polio (POLY) neuritis, inflammation of the nerves, awfully painful, and he was enormously ill, very ill. In fact there were an awful lot of people around him who didn't think he was going to pull through. He was very very sick.
Narrator:: Giannini, turning sixty, decided the only way to save his dream...was new blood. In 1930, he stepped down.
Evans: The banker magazine said good riddance to this "brackets" Italian immigrant.
Narrator: He handed control to Elisha Walker. Educated at Yale and MIT, Walker ran one of the oldest and most distinguished investment firms on Wall Street. Giannini expected Walker, the Wall Street insider to do battle with New York's banking establishment. But not everyone agreed on the choice. His brother Attilio urged him to reconsider.
Bonadio: "You're making a mistake" Attilio said to him. "You're making a mistake. These people will never, never like us, never like our kind. They're contemptuous of us. They don't like Italians. They don't like the clients from Brooklyn and the Bronx. You're going to find out just how, just how big a mistake you made."
Narrator: With Giannini off in Europe for medical treatment, Walker took the reins and soon steered the bank in a new direction. Scared by the deepening Depression, he started selling off banks, despite countless cabled protests from the retired founder.
Bonadio: Going to sell much of what Giannini had spent 30 years building up, going to sell it.
Evans: And the dramatic moment is when Giannini comes back; he knows he's being betrayed, and he storms into the board room of his bank where some of his cowardly associates are sitting with Walker, and he puts down the gauntlet, "And you've got a fight on your hand; I'm going to take my bank back."
Bonadio: The amazing thing is as sick as he was, he's beginning to recover. He loves this. He loves a good fight. Giannini always did, loved a good fight.They began having rallies across the state of California. Huge rallies. And the theme is the theme that Giannini picked out: California versus Wall Street. Do you want those cocktail sippers running the bank, running Transamerica? Is that what you want? California is not going to allow that to happen.
Narrator: Meanwhile Walker quietly gathered up 7000 large shareholders to his side. On February 15, 1932, the forces converged on Wilmington, Delaware for the company's annual meeting. Giannini and his supporters took the lower floors.
Evans:: The floors packed. Walker's people arrive in limousines. Walker's confident he's going to win.
Narrator: The time had come to count the shareholders' votes to see whose vision of Transamerica would prevail.
Bonadio: When they were counted, by midnight, it was clear that Giannini had won. And uh, by um some say as many as two and a half, three votes to one, he had won. He had regained control of Transamerica, and he came out and spoke to his followers who were cheering, tears streaming down his face, and he told them "Let's move forward. We've got work to do.
Narrator: Restored to power by the "little fellows," Giannini used the bank's might to battle their greatest enemy, the Depression. He boosted the economy with aggressive loan programs for homes, appliances and cars. He lent millions for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, creating hundreds of jobs and a new symbol of hope. Through it all, Giannini stuck with his vision. His bank, now called The Bank of America, was soon the largest privately owned one in the world. The average account held less than a thousand dollars.
Bonadio: He changed America by making banking democratic, by making the services of professional banking available to ordinary people. That's the way that Giannini felt democracy revitalized itself, by giving people the opportunity to grow and to realize their dreams and ambitions.
Narrator: In the Depression, not all business giants fared as well as A.P. Giannini. In 1932, Samuel Insull's business empire, once worth 226 million dollars collapsed. It was the single largest business failure ever, and would remain so for the next 70 years. By the summer of 1934, the former magnate was living in a Chicago hotel room... awaiting trial on charges of fraud. Many Americans had lost money in the debacle and some were out for blood. "Dear Sir, This is the last letter. ... I got 15 sticks of dynamite ready and two guns and two revolvers... This is our money, not yours". That summer, Insull started a memoir. The outcome of his trial and his freedom would soon hang on that story, a story of ambition, reinvention, and a boat bound for the United States. The year was 1881. The twenty one year old Englishman had been offered a position in New York as Thomas Edison's private secretary. For months he'd been carefully maneuvering toward the job while working for the inventor's business agent in London. "I was desperately sea-sick on the trip..." Insull recalled in his memoir, "and arrived in New York on Monday evening, February 28th. Immediately I was taken to meet Mr. Edison for the first time. The picture of him is as vivid to me now as if the incident occurred yesterday."
Evans: Insull arrives. He's exhausted. He's been traveling on the boat, he's still been seasick and he stands there kind of wobbly. And Edison says, "My God, he's so young!" Furthermore he can barely understand what this Cockney's saying to him. He has a kind of Cockney accent. "Now Mr. Edison I've come all this way to help..." He doesn't speak the Queen's English! Edison who's deaf anyways has a hell of a job understanding him. However, Edison has a need. And immediately Insull is given an astonishing challenge.
Narrator:That night Edison laid out his vision for his latest ambition. He'd introduced his incandescent bulb to the world just two years earlier. Now he planned to build in downtown Manhattan, the first operating electric power plant... but he was short $150,000 in financing. He challenged Insull to find a way to raise the money. Insull stayed up all night, going through the books. By dawn he had a plan to modify some contracts and make small changes to licensing rights in Europe.
Evans: Insull finds him the money! And Insull then becomes everything to Edison, he carries his bag; gives him his umbrella; checks his appointments; raises money for him; goes and starts a factory in Schenectady. And the young Englishman, given this opportunity, just blossoms.
Narrator: Born in London to a struggling lower middle class family, Insull always had big ambitions in business... but not much of a chance.
Evans: He's brought up in a society where opportunities for people like him who speak like this are very limited. Insull's a brilliant young man. If he'd stayed in England, he might have got to be the manager of a minor bank. But in America he becomes one of the biggest tycoons there is.
Narrator: In 1886, Edison gave Insull a chance to run an electrical factory in Schenectady. "Do it big, Sammy" said Edison "Make it a big success or a big failure. Make it go." He did. It was an acorn from which the giant General Electric would grow. Insull shared many of Edison's dreams but one would become a quest. At a time when few had electricity, Insull foresaw a wired future for all.
Harold Platt, Historian: Insull has the idea, sort of a democratic idea of providing what he believed as a great new technology, a great new source of energy, a great improvement in the quality of life. He really wanted to provide that to everyone.
Narrator: Insull worked for Edison for eleven years. In 1892, when a company merger pushed the inventor out, Insull left as well, moving to Chicago. He took over a little power station - one of about twenty selling electricity. Combined, they served just 5000 customers in a city of a million. The industry operated on a small scale to contain the risk in this strange new business.
Forrest McDonald, Biographer: The business of electric power supply is different from any other manufacturing industry because the product is manufactured, transported, distributed and consumed all in the same instant. You can't store the product. If you're a manufacturer of widgets and there's a market, well, if you get too many of them, you stop making widgets for a while until the market picks up. Electricity, you can't do that. When Insull got into the business, nobody had the foggiest idea what made it work.
Narrator: Insull's competition played it safe. Their strategy was to sell electricity to those able to pay top dollar. Make it a luxury. Insull's answer was the opposite. "Make it big, Sammy" Edison had said. To do that, Insull would have to risk everything. First he mortgaged his future, personally borrowing a quarter of a million dollars to invest in his little utility. Then he started to eliminate the competition, buying them out one by one. He'd concluded that his utility would run most efficiently as a monopoly. But most important of all, to cut the unit cost of production, he built big.In 1894, he built the largest power plant in the world, the Harrison Street Station. He'd hold the record for the biggest power plant for almost forty years, pushing the existing technology to its limit... and then beyond.
Evans: The first time Insull asked for 5,000 kilo-watt generator, General Electric won't make it. Nobody wants to make it. He finally bullies them into making it, and they're terrified to turn it on, and in fact, they turn it on and it stops.
McDonald: Insull's chief engineer was standing there, and he looked, and he saw Insull standing there with him. And he said, "Mr. Insull, you've got to get out of here. It may, this thing could blow up." And Insull said, "If it blows up, I blow up with it."
Narrator: The massive turbine worked. But giant power plants were just part of Insull's solution. He'd go broke if he could not lower his costs by running the generators around the clock. So Insull sold electricity like a man possessed - charging different prices to customers who used power at different times.
Platt: The main way he tried to manage the load, initially, was in the city, by finding customers who would use electricity at times other than the peak period, which was basically from six o'clock in the evening until about ten o'clock in the evening. // like all night restaurants, all night drugstores, ice companies that could make the ice at night. He gave them a price they couldn't refuse. Housewives used electricity not during the rush hours but sort of in the middle of the day, right, for ironing, for vacuuming their homes, eventually for refrigerators.
Narrator: Insull pushed appliances, gave away electric irons, wired houses on easy terms, anything to build demand. The price of electricity once so high only the rich could afford it, began to drop. The more users Insull gained, the more he could afford to cut rates. Insull's bold strategy of building big had initiated a cycle of growth and ever cheaper electricity that would continue until the 1960s.
Platt: Every time you get a rate cut, he's a hero. As all of us utility users are, rates go down, that's good. They start going up, it's bad. So -- but throughout his entire career rates went down, and quite dramatically.
Narrator: Just as Edison invented the light bulb, Insull invented the electric utility. The miracle of cheap electricity spread rapidly in Chicago, as did Insull's ideas around the nation. While rural areas would have to wait decades to get wired, American cities become beacons to the future.
Koehn: This is a business development with profound social and political and cultural implications for not only how we interact, and how our days unfold, but also who we know; what we do; where we go; how hard we work;, how we think about ourselves.
Narrator: From 1907 through to the end of the '20s, Insull ran an ever-expanding empire. His utilities served more than 4 million customers, spread over thirty two states, and were valued at nearly 3 billion dollars.
McDonald: Sam Insull was virtually the Babe Ruth of business in the 1920's. And businessmen were heroes in the 1920's, and so he's a hero among heroes.
Narrator: To pay for all the expansion, Insull had invented a new way to raise money- instead of relying on the big banks - he sold low-price bonds and stock to his customers. Over a million Americans bought in.
Platt: Very few middle class people were stock holders in that day. But this seemed like a no lose win-win situation. Everyone uses electricity, become a stockholder and you will in a sense profit from your own use of energy. How could you lose?
Narrator: That formula was put to the test when the twenties ended in economic collapse.The Babe Ruth of Business stepped up to the plate. Insull personally paid the wages of policemen, teachers and firemen in bankrupt Chicago.While others retrenched, he kept expanding... believing that if everyone did the same The Depression would end.
Platt: Insull believes he can kind of save America. He is handing out free food. He is handing -- he is buying shares to try and single-handedly kind of hold the price of his stock up. Of course, he can't do that. No one could in the Great Depression.
Narrator: Trying to save America, Insull overextended himself. The finances of his companies spun out of his control. Creditors took over. During a single day, June 6th 1932, Insull was forced to resign from all the companies he'd amassed over decades. He owed 16 million dollars more than he was worth, "too broke to be bankrupt" one banker said. But the spectacular collapse didn't affect him alone. The million investors who had placed their faith in him, saw their savings melt away. Their admiration turned to anger.
McDonald: There were hundreds of thousands of stockholders who lost their shirts. He just became an extremely popular target for that reason. He had been such a hero, had been so lionized. He's the cause of all this greatness that we've got in the twenties. Pow! He's also the cause of all this mess that we've got in the thirties.
Narrator: The press and the politicians piled on. A Chicago prosecutor charged Insull with deceiving investors with false financial statements. He fled the country, but nineteen months later was on a boat back to the US. By the time he reached Chicago he'd steeled himself for a fight.
Sam Insull: I did everything I could to save the investors in my companies. The depression was too much for me. I went down with my ship. You will be convinced that although my judgment was bad I was not dishonest.
Narrator: Insull waited five months in a Chicago hotel room for his trial to begin. That day arrived October 2nd, 1934.
McDonald: The prosecution's case was built upon a bookkeeping proposition. They claimed that Insull had used the mails to defraud by overstating the earnings of his companies. The defense on the contrary, was that number one, we followed standard accounting practices, and that number two, let's put Sam Insull on trial for his whole life. So Insull got on the stand, and Judge Thompson, who was his lawyer, led him through telling his story, step by step, starting with the semi-poverty in London, and moving on up and he just sat there, and over the course of several days, just hypnotized the jury.
McDonald: The jury went out --in two minutes said, "He's perfectly innocent."
Narrator: Fearing their quick decision would suggest they'd been bribed, the jurors waited two hours to issue their verdict. Not guilty on all counts. Insull's actions had been found within the law, but the verdict didn't change the record breaking loss, paid for by many Americans. He'd remain the Depression's scapegoat.
Narrator: With his reputation destroyed Insull left the country. A few years later he was found dead of a heart attack in the Paris subway. Though largely forgotten, his legacy remains.
Evans: Insull says that electricity shouldn't just be for the rich, but the masses will deserve electricity, and I will see they can get it very cheaply. Insull's genius -- it's nothing short of that -- is to find a way to get it out to society so that the benefits of it can be universally shared.
Narrator: Insull's business failure in 1932 was unique in size but not in kind. A quarter of a million American businesses went bust during the Depression. n their Bayonne New Jersey factory, Ida and William Rosenthal felt the pressure.Theirs was a new business that might have seemed a passing fad: they made the first uplift brassiere, designed to accentuate a woman's curves. The couple worked hand in hand, "married in life as well as business" Ida would say. William handled the designing and Ida the selling.
Elizabeth Coleman, Granddaughter of Ida Rosenthal: My grandmother had a fantastic personality. I mean, you know, an aspect of being entrepreneurial, certainly, in that time was charm. I mean, she could go to a store, and get them to buy anything, because that's the kind of person she was. She was so vivacious. My grandfather was really very different. He was quieter, he was an artist, and was a great designer really sweet not as outgoing, a perfect foil for my grandmother who was just a very very strong minded strong personality.
Narrator: In fact Ida's outspokenness had in part brought her to America. She was born in Russia in 1886 in a small town near Minsk. Though "Ittle" as she was known, would always be small in size she never had any shortage of backbone. At 16 she embraced socialism, speaking out against the Tsar and risking arrest or worse. Then her parents learned she'd caught the eye of the authorities.
Coleman: Her family was worried about her in this world where Jews were persecuted and where an outspoken young Jewish woman was definitely in danger. And as I understand it they saved up money to help her come here because they wanted to get her out of there where she would be safe.
Narrator: Holding her back was her love for a fellow revolutionary, William Rosenthal. When he left for New York City, she followed and they married in 1906. "I came after the man who was to be my husband." she later said "I couldn't live without him."
Koehn: And when she gets here, she sees all kinds of things. She's not going to stay in the tenements of the Lower East Side. She's off to New Jersey; she puts her savings together to buy a Singer sewing machine, and she's making dresses, and she's good at it, and she's working her way up really from the get-go.
Narrator: By 1921, after years of dress making success on her own, Ida had become a partner with Enid Bisset, a British former vaudevillian. Together they made high- end dresses that they sold from a swank boutique on 57th Street... to a clientele made glamorous by Enid's connections to the theater world. Business was so good, William joined them as well. He looked after the dress fabrication side of the business, sewing and ordering fabrics. Despite the success, both Enid and Ida felt a growing frustration. They designed their dresses to flow gracefully over the female form, but the bandeau and other undergarments of the day were designed to obscure it. While varying in strategy, they all shared a common purpose, to minimize the breasts to achieve the new post World War I female silhouette, the flat-chested narrow-hipped look of the flapper.
Coleman: Women were basically conforming their bodies to a style which was a very unnatural style, which was to be hemmed in!
Narrator: "It was a sad story" Ida Rosenthal later said "The companies used to advertise, `Look like your brother.' Well, that's not possible. Why fight nature?" Seeking a solution that could be sewn into a dress or worn under it, Enid explored cutting a bandeau in two and putting elastic in between. "If you want to wear that," William said, "at least let me make you a nice one." He made a key change to the design for which he'd later receive a patent. His brassiere didn't flatten but instead provided uplift accentuating the breasts...though to nowhere near the degree that would develop in the coming years. "Like any new idea," Ida later remarked, "the first airplane wasn't a jet." But it was a new idea.
Coleman: Instead of a woman conforming to a shape that she was told to conform to, here was a garment that conformed to her shape, and that's what's so liberating, is that it's a woman -- it's who she is; it's not -- she's not being engineered to fit the clothes; the clothes are being engineered to fit her.
Narrator: At first, none of them saw it as much of a commercial product. It was given away with a dress, then soon sold from a bowl for a dollar a piece. But women kept returning to buy extra brassieres. As the demand grew, Enid, Ida, and William realized they had something. In 1922 , they invested forty five hundred dollars, hired some employees, and started a small sewing operation in the basement of the dress shop. Enid invented the name, a play off the Boysh form bandeau: Maiden Form Brassieres.
Cohen: Women's immediate reaction once they try it is very, very enthusiastic and women start talking about it, and telling their friends. All early markets -- all new products are built by the kind of igniting of timbers of consumer interest, and the best kind of kindling for that is consumers telling other consumers.
Male Singer: "You are a most remarkable girl. Remarkable!"
Coleman: Women bought it. I mean, obviously they bought them; they bought the idea; they went out and bought the bras, and they -- sales took off, and women were relating -- yes; I'm going to -- you know, I mean, it's kind of obvious that you wouldn't want to be squished. And so you would buy it, and they voted with their feet; women voted with their feet.
Narrator: In 1925, at Ida's urging, the partners took a bold risk. They closed the dress shop. They'd placed their bet on brassieres.
Koehn: One of the really striking things about the story is how quickly it really caught on -- the computer, the latte, ketchup, the department store, even Wedgwood china in the eighteenth century -- they don't catch on like wildfire. The tipping point in which something that's new and known by a few early adopters becomes mass, or enjoys a takeoff into sustained growth, very rarely comes as quickly as it does with the bra.
Narrator: The rapid adoption of the brassiere reflected more than a change in fashion. In the 1920s, for the first time, more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural ones. The urban shift brought a wave of change in American labor, a wave that Maidenform rode.
Koehn: This is the largest, single influx of women out of the home and into the workforce in the history of America by orders of magnitude. Women pour into stenography pools; they pour into the new department stores; they pour into factories, as the Industrial Revolution that will create the twentieth century modern American economy really takes hold.
Coleman: Women's roles were changing, and the bra really grew with women's roles growing. Literally and figuratively the company supported women.
Narrator: In 1928, Maiden Form sold a half million bras. That year Enid Bisset left the business in poor health. The fate of Maiden Form rested on the Rosenthals' shoulders.
Koehn: She's savvy, and she understands business, and she wants to be a businesswomen. It's less clear that he's on the channel, but what is clear is that he has a very creative, very imaginative mind, as well, and so you have one plus one, but in a very unusual entrepreneurial partnership equals three.
Narrator: With William providing the product, and Ida the sales the company kept growing through the stock market crash, when glamorous boutiques like Ida's previous business seemed to disappear overnight, and through the Depression, when businesses folded around them but they continued to hire.
Coleman: Maidenform did okay in the Depression. This business was really not so sensitive to economic fluctuations. Because as it became an item that women felt they needed, and it's also an indulgence that isn't that expensive. It was something that women could buy when they didn't feel that economically powerful.
Narration: Enid made the early attempt at the bra, and William added uplift and ongoing improvements. But the guiding force growing the company was Ida Rosenthal. In promoting Maidenform into a multi-million dollar company, she also promoted an open appreciation of the female form.
Evans: The Russian immigrant, who was a revolutionary there for political ends, is a revolutionary here in terms of social ideals, because she really believes that a woman is entitled to show she has a body of a certain kind, and the Maidenform bra does that. So, that's a social liberation.
Narration: Nowhere was that more evident than in Maidenform's daring "I dreamed" campaign - started in 1949.
Koehn: The Maidenform ads of the post-war period, are really quite innovative. Those ads are about -- just like today -- all the different ways that women have to think about themselves; all the different roles women have to be confused about themselves; all the different roles women have to dream about and for themselves. //They're speaking to all those different things in those ads, and that is commercial imagination at its finest.
Narrator: The "I dreamed" campaign solidified Maidenform's place in American culture. Once Ida was asked if she believed in dreams. "Dreams?" the consummate marketer replied. "I believe in reality...and a little hard sell." In the early decades of the twentieth century, a generation of innovators, many of them immigrants, created modern America.
Evans: We assume we can go to the bank and get money; we know that if we have a very good idea, some capital will be found for it.We don't think twice about having access to constant electricity. We're used to women, now, being able to express themselves. You can be who you are, you needn't be ashamed of your body. None of those things -- not one of them -- would have taken off the way they did, and become part of our society today without three people, who were strangers to America... without three immigrants.