When I originally created the Business of Beauty guide, Madam C. J. Walker is someone I included not only because she played an integral role in the history of the African American beauty industry, but because she was an amazing businesswoman. She made another appearance when I wrote a blog post about the new American Enterprise exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2015. Now, in 2020, Netflix will air a series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker, and I decided that it was past time she got her own post.
Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, and like many African American women, she was in search of good hair care products and solutions that met their particular needs. Unfortunately, many of the products available could be very harsh and leave women with long-term damage.
This led her to working as a commission agent for Annie T. Malone’s Poro Company, and she eventually moved to Denver. While in Denver, she developed her own products and went out on her own. She began selling door to door with the help of her husband Charles and her daughter A’lelia. Sarah and Charles traveled around the country promoting the products, before settling in Pittsburgh. When they closed up operations in Denver, A’lelia moved to Pittsburgh to run the business, and in 1910, new operations were opened in Indianapolis. The company, now called the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, developed the “Walker System” which included a shampoo, a pomade, strenuous brushing, and applying iron combs to hair. Business boomed and the new headquarters in Indianapolis included a factory, hair salon, a beauty school to train sales agents, and a laboratory. They even began placing products in local drug stores.
Madam C. J. was very conscious of her brand and the image the company was projecting. The products were carefully designed and she targeted her audience by advertising in African-American newspapers and magazines. The women selling her products door to door dressed professionally in white shirts and black skirts. She herself traveled around promoting her products, the “Walker System,” and the company.
At the time of her death in 1919, she was considered the wealthiest African-American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made woman in the country. After her death, her daughter ran the business and the company’s products were so well known that they continued to be sold in places like Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica.Newspapers are an accessible way to understand the world as it once was, so in this post I have linked to a number of articles from our free Chronicling America website. They are a great resource for learning about her work and travels. There are also other interesting stories that provide a view into her world, such as the one about her $1000 donation to the Indianapolis Y.M.C.A. in 1911, and a 1931 story about the auctioning of her New York villa.
Since searching digital newspapers can be challenging, it is best to look for specific things if you want to do your own research. Use her name and the company name to start, but also search variations like walker mfg co. You can also search the names of the company’s products like Tan-off or Walker Hair Grower, which can lead to advertisements that include prices. To get a sense of the market generally, search the names of competitors and their products — Star Hair Grower, Madam Katie Martin, MM J. V. Hawkins, Sarah Spencer Washington’s Apex System, Annie Malone’s Poro Company and college, and others.
What’s great about searching newspapers, are all the other things you learn about the African American business community along the way. So go explore and learn more about her and her world.
If you want to go beyond the Library, the new Smithsonian Open Access has a number of images and photographs of products from their collections, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has written blog posts and has featured her in the Making a Way Out of No Way exhibit, and there is a family archives website.
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