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Advertisement for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderfuln Hair Grower
Mme. C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower Advertisement, The Arizona Gleam, May 14, 1937

Inventions and Innovations: Entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Well-known inventors and innovators often do more than create new products and improve existing ones. Many are also skilled entrepreneurs who adeptly navigate the business landscape to reach new customers. Madam C.J. Walker was one such entrepreneur, focusing on hair and beauty products. In the early 20th century, Madam Walker became one of the first female self-made millionaires in America. She also became one of the wealthiest African-American businesswomen of her time. Madam Walker’s daughter A’Lelia (born Lelia) became an integral part of her business and continued it after her death. Analyzing historical newspaper articles from Chronicling America can help students both celebrate the Walkers’ accomplishments and reflect on their entrepreneurial practices. 

One way to expose students to different aspects of Madam Walker’s efforts is to set up primary source stations. Groups of students can take turns analyzing newspapers from each station and responding to question prompts, or the stations could be jig-sawed.

Station 1: Product Advertisements

Possible question prompts at this station include: “What kinds of products did Madam C. J. Walker sell?” and “What do the pictures and ad copy reveal about Walker’s intended audience or marketing strategy?”

In addition to the ads themselves, students may learn more about the Arizona Gleam and Franklin’s Paper by clicking the “About” button at the top of each newspaper page. For example, these newspapers largely focused on African American audiences. How does learning that shape how students interpret the ads?

Students analyzing the Arizona Gleam ad may note that Walker—who is pictured in the ad—“came from the great working class of people. She knew their toils and hardships; of the sweat and grime and drudgery of life.” Meanwhile, images from Franklin’s paper, as well as the historical background information, imply that many of the customers Walker sought to help were other African American women.

Station 2: Business Model

Ask students: “What does each ad show about Walker’s business model?”?

Close reading reveals that Walker was interested in enlisting her customers as independent sales agents who would eventually run their own businesses. This related article from the Denver Star tells how Walker even held conferences to inspire and train these agents, offering a unique path “from the sugar cane field and the wash tub” to “ownership of a business enterprise which commands high recognition.”

Learn to Grow Hair and Make Money. Advertisement from the Southern Indicator, July 23, 1921

Station 3:  Community Impact

Finally, ask students: “In what ways did Walker’s work affect her community?” The headline reads, “Madam C.J. Walker [Sold] Her Hair Grower so Widely that She [Was] Able to Give Indianapolis Y.M.C.A a Thousand Dollars.” What might this imply about Walker’s approach to entrepreneurship?

After students have completed all stations, ask them to brainstorm what successful entrepreneurs might do other than inventing new products. What types of things would students themselves do if they were successful entrepreneurs like Madam Walker?

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