I’m currently writing a post about minority women who have become prominent social figures through their cosmetics entrepreneurship. I feel I could hardly do them justice without talking first about one of America’s first female or black millionaires, an early advocate for civil rights and women’s rights, and patron of the arts. Madame C.J. Walker, born to poor sharecroppers and former slaves in Louisiana, rose to business and social prominence throughout the United States through years of fearless hard work.
Records show that Sarah Breedlove, who became Mme. Walker, was born to Owen and Minerva in the town of Delta, Mississippi on December 23, 1867. Her parents were farmers and she began working in cotton fields at a very young age. As she grew, she worked as a domestic servant and as laundress. Her first husband was Moses McWilliams, whom she married at age 14. In 1885, she gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia (later A’Lelia) at the age of 16. A’Lelia spent much of her adult life managing her mother’s company and was responsible for Walker’s move to Harlem.
In 1877, Sarah McWilliams, widowed, moved with her daughter to St. Louis. Little is known about this time spent, likely, working for others and raising her daughter. She probably lived with several other Breedloves who kept a barbershop, and were most likely brothers or cousins. When she began experimenting with hair tonics to cure scalp problems in the 1900s, she probably had these hair-working family members to consult.
In the late 19th century, the personal care products industry didn’t yet exist. What health products existed were often sold door to door. The Federal Food & Drug Administration had not yet been established to vet care claims or product dangers. Because of the lack of formality in these kinds of businesses, they were one place where women could exercise entrepreneurial energy and succeed in business.
Lydia Pinkham, who created a famous women’s tonic, was one such, and another was Rebecca Elliott, one of the first women to create and market care products for African American hair. In the 1880s, these women pioneered direct marketing techniques such as repetitive advertisements in women’s magazines and local newspapers, door to door salesmanship, and using the founder’s image as a signature packaging image. These were all techniques that Walker used to build her personal care products empire.
Walker began her career in hair products by selling those created by Annie Turnbo Malone. By 1902 Malone had introduced her Wonderful Hair Grower, aimed at healing hair follicles damaged by harsh homemade hair preparations. She begins selling these door to door in St. Louis, and shortly thereafter, Sarah McWilliams (now Davis, from a marriage in the 1890s) begins selling them as well. By 1905, Davis had moved to Denver, Colorado to represent Malone’s products. There she perfected her own hair preparation and married newspaper publicity man Charles Joseph Walker. From this point, Sarah’s work will be for her own products and fame.
By early 1910, Madame had settled in Indianapolis, a center of manufacturing. Here she built her factory, hair salon, and beauty school. Here she began her philanthropic career, as well, donating $1,000 to help build a YMCA in Indianapolis.
Walker traveled extensively giving demonstrations of her products and teaching women how to use hot combs to manage their hair. Like Malone before her, she also relied on door-to-door saleswomen to create her sales image, and also like Malone, she established salons to provide hair care as well as sell her products.
After her business was established (c. 1916), Walker moved to Harlem, New York City, to be with her daughter. Here she became involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement of activists. She counted as friends Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Her wealth enabled her to contribute money to WWI war relief, fund scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute and other schools, and to fund orphanages and other projects. In addition, she was an executive of the New York chapter of the NAACP and contributed heavily to their anti-lynching fund.
In 1917, Walker built a grand home in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, which she hoped would become a gathering place for African American community leaders. To open the house, she hosted an event to honor Emmett Jay Scott, the Assistant Secretary for Negro Affairs at the U.S. Department of War.
When Walker died in May 1919, she was considered the wealthiest African American woman in America, and one of the countries most prominent female businesspeople. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetary, in the Bronx, New York. Walker’s daughter A’Lelia became president of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing company. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, is Walker’s official biographer and author of both a book and a detailed website on Madame.
Www.madamcjwalker.com has an extensive list of research tools for anyone wishing to know more about this tough businesswoman. In addition, Wikipedia has a detailed page on Walker as well. I also consulted Beverly Lowry’s Her Dream of Dreams, which gives a deep sense of the historical context around Walker. Enjoy!