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grop of black men sitting on a porch watching one man standing over a seated man cutting his hair
Cutting each other's hair in front of plantation store, Mileston Plantation. Marion Post Wolcott, Mississippi Delta, 1939.

Black Beauty: a Brief History of the African American Beauty Industry

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This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. This is another in a series looking African Americans in business and the sciences.

Sarah Breedlove, more commonly known by the name, Madame C.J. Walker and Anne T. Malone are perhaps two of the better-known African American entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the beauty and hair industry. However, Marjorie Joyner, Rose Meta Morgan, Anthony Overton, and John H. Johnson also made lasting contributions to the beauty and hair industry, paving the way for eventual brands, including the pop musician Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty. Although I could not include every African American who made an impact on the industry, I have listed five notable African American businesswomen and businessmen in the trade.

Photograph of a dozen women inside a room at a manufacturing business working at tables
The Overton – Hygienic Manufacturing Co., 1925. From the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Anthony Overton, March 21, 1865 – July 2, 1946
Born into slavery in 1865, Anthony Overton became a leading African American entrepreneur during the twentieth century with the establishment of his Chicago-based empire. However, before moving to Chicago, Illinois, in 1898, Overton created the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company in Kansas City, Missouri. The company sold baking powder, cosmetics, perfumes, hair products, and toiletries. In 1911, Overton moved his company to Chicago. The company’s success allowed Overton to employ over four hundred people, and in 1912, they exported over fifty-two cosmetic products to countries including Egypt, Liberia, and Japan. The success of his hygenic company made it possible for Overton to establish The Douglass National Bank, The Victory Life Insurance Company, The Half-Century Magazine, The Chicago Bee, and The Great Northern Realty Company.

In the October 8, 1921,  issue of The Broad Ax newspaper, a journalist reported that the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company “used to manufacture the High Brown face powder… and then they get out all kinds of toilet waters, perfumes, face powders and everything else that goes to produce beauty.”

Drawing from patent 1,693,515 from November 27 1928 of a permanent wave machine submitted by M. S. Joyner filed May 16 1928
Permanent Wave Machine
M. S. Joyner
Patent: 1,693,515
Issue Date: November 27, 1928

Marjorie Joyner, October 24, 1896 – December 27, 1994
In 1916, Marjorie Joyner opened her first salon on Chicago’s South State Street. Joyner’s experience in beauty and hair led to her creation of a permanent hair-wave machine. In 1928, Joyner filed a patent petition for her invention, stating, “The object of the invention is the construction of a simple and efficient machine that will wave the hair of both white and colored women.” Although Joyner never received payment for her creation, she continued to give back to the community. In 1945, Joyner co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association and the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity. The sorority and fraternity, which seeks to “uplift the educational and economic standards of the beauty industry,” is still in existence today.

Rose Meta Morgan, August 9, 1912 – December 16, 2008
As with Marjorie Joyner, Rose Meta Morgan opened her first salon, the Rose Meta House of Beauty, albeit decades later in 1945, in New York. The salon offered hair and skin care, as well as other services catering to black women. Several newspapers had advertisements for the grand opening of the salon, including the May 29, 1948, issue of The Detroit Tribute, in which it stated, “Women, This is What You’ve Been Waiting For! Everything to Make You Beautiful All Under One Roof.”

Advertisement for the Rose Meta House of Beauty announcing the opening on May 30 1948 from 4 to 20 pm providing a hair department, beauty consultation, photography, dress designing, hat designing, physic/therapy, and medical service
Detroit Tribune. 19 May 1948.

Just a year later, Ebony deemed her salon “the biggest Negro beauty parlor in the world.” The salon went on to amass more than $3 million in sales only a few years after opening. As with Anthony Overton, Morgan’s entrepreneurial interests expanded beyond the beauty business to eventually include banking. In 1964, Morgan helped start Freedom National Bank, a black-owned commercial bank operating in New York.

John H. Johnson, January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005
In 1942, John H. Johnson founded Johnson Publishing Company, which published Negro Digest, Ebony, and Jet magazines. However, in addition to Johnson’s commercial ventures in magazine and book publishing, he owned Supreme Beauty Products and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the largest black-owned cosmetics company in the world at the time. Fashion Fair was created with the goal of creating makeup to meet the specific needs of women of color, and they went on to manufacture skin care, fragrance and hair care products. The National Visionary Leadership Project did an oral history interview with Johnson in 2002.

Rihanna, February 20, 1988 – Present
Although perhaps best known for being one of the most famous and recognized female pop musicians of our time, Rihanna became the world’s wealthiest female musician and a respected entrepreneur with the launch of Fenty Beauty. The company brought in $570 million in profit in only 15 months after its opening. Known for its inclusive branding, Rihanna created Fenty Beauty with the goal of creating products that “performed across all skin types and tones.”

Contributions from Anthony Overton with his cosmetic empire to Rose Meta Morgan with her enormously successful black beauty salons to Rihanna in the present day with her cosmetics line, there have been significant changes to the beauty and hair industry for African American consumers.

Advertisement for Madam C. J. Walker Preparations
Advertisement showing images of cold cream, and hair and complexion products, 1920.

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Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.

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Comments (6)

  1. This is very fascinating. Nice blog.

  2. This is AMAZING… Thank you so much for this information. I will be sharing this with my Nail students.

  3. Thanks for an infromative blog

  4. Thank you for this! I love to expand my knowledge about the legends in this industry, will there be more articles like this soon?

  5. I LOVE this but hate that the three we don’t worship are the best of the group! And I’ve never heard of them! Yet, I should know!
    But Taylor Swift is the top female earning musician.
    Not a Rihanna music fan, but she gained my respect with Fenty for, ignore the profits, changing the global makeup industry.

  6. This was very informing. Thank you for piecing this together!

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