Sarah Breedlove Walker, known as Madam C. J. Walker, was the first African American woman millionaire in America, known not only for her hair straightening treatment and her salon system which helped other African Americans to succeed, but also her work to end lynching and gain women's rights.
Cosmetics: The Lost Years : Notable women who paved the way for today's cosmetic industry.(Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C.J. Walker) Author: Steve Herman
Issue: April, 2000
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, Burned in the water. The poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were lovesick with them...
--Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra
We all know that cosmetics existed thousands of years ago. Cleopatra used a heavy arsenal of beauty aids to help her shake the foundations of the Roman Empire. Yes, cosmetics and perfumes have a long history, but the consumer industry we live in is relatively recent, a creation of the decades 1890 through 1920. The products hawked in the 19th Century by druggists, perfumers, barbers, physicians, and a colorful assortment of other enterprising individuals were primitive by our standards. Certainly, active ingredients were used with abandon, notably arsenic, lead, and mercury. These were products that really made visible differences, and the consumer was well-advised to be wary of the majority of these mysterious concoctions.
The transition to modern consumerism involved not just the introduction of responsible product formulation, but fundamental transformations of social behavior. Women were at the heart of this development in the cosmetic industry, and we will consider the contributions of two of them: Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C. J. Walker. These women and their contemporaries paved the way for Estee Lauder and Mary Kay Ash in our time.
It is essential to recognize the relative perception of beauty products and hair treatments for different ethnic groups at the time in question. For the white consumer, the use of makeup was the major issue; the disreputable view of the painted lady had to be overcome. The black woman had a more complex situation regarding the products being offered. Hair-straightening and skin-lightening products could be viewed as an attempt to seem more white, and use of these products was thus charged with racial overtones within the black community.
Into this seething cauldron of social and economic change, two remarkable women seized the challenge, each becoming millionaires in the process. Each was born into poverty, endured grueling manual labor, and lived in a society with intense racial discrimination. The women, Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), proved that in an America more than half a century before the civil right movement, opportunity indeed existed for all.
Each developed a hair-care formula. Walker based her product on lore obtained from an aunt who was a herb doctor. Malone took the approach many modern bench chemists use: Her formulation came from a large African man in a dream--or directly from God, whichever version one prefers.
Malone entered business first, anchoring her line with Wonderful Hair Grower. Access to traditional distribution through chain stores was denied to blacks, so the products were sold door-to-door. Business prospered and in 1902 manufacturing settled in St. Louis, with its vibrant black community and active toiletries trade. Within a few years, the line was distributed nationally.
Then as now, success breeds imitators, and by 1906 it was necessary to rename the product. The trademark protected the name Poro, the Mende (West African) word for a devotional society. These minority companies viewed their products as more than a mere business, but the focus of a way of life.
Malone's competition came from a former Poro sales agent, C. J. Walker....