Black History Month : Madam C.J. Walker
As part of the Black History Month, we are focusing on two main figures from the hair care industry that made the headlines earlier this year. We are talking about Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Malone!
Madam C.J. Walker’s story was featured in the Netflix mini-series ‘Self-Made’ in March 2020 which depicted a tense relationship with her rival Addie Munroe, who was no other than Annie Turnbo Malone.
We have previously covered Annie Malone’s story.
Let’s found out more about Madam C.J. Walker!
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on 23rd December 1867 in a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Both her parents died when she was 7 years old. Sarah went to live with her older sister Louvinia and her husband in Mississippi where she used to work in a cotton field.
At only 14 years old, Sarah married Moses McWilliams to escape her abusive brother-in-law.
She then gave birth to her daughter A’Lelia in 1885.
Unfortunately, Moses died two years later, leading Sarah to move to St. Louis, Missouri in 1889 where her four brothers lived and worked as barbers.
She worked as a laundress and cook for many years, earning just enough money to send A’Lelia to public school.
It all began with hair loss
During the 1890s , Sarah developed a scalp disorder and was loosing her hair. It is thought that her hair loss was probably related to her work as she was exposed to harsh chemicals , like lye soap .
However, Black women were often experiencing hair loss at that time as they couldn’t wash their hair very often as there were no indoor plumbing, and scalp problems related to lice could not be treated.
Sarah tried to solve her hair loss problem with various hair products and home remedies but didn’t get any results. She even ask for help to her brother, but they didn’t have knowledge on scalp diseases and women’s hair.
Annie Turnbo Malone's ‘Great Wonderful Hair Grower’ solved her hair loss
Annie Malone arrived in St. Louis in 1903 to get herself ready for the 1904 World's Fair.
Around 1903, Sarah began to use Annie’s ‘Great Wonderful Hair Grower’. The product did deliver results and Sarah’s hair grew back. Annie was recruiting sales agents at the time, and that was how Sarah became one of her ‘Poro Agents’.
Sarah, a ‘Poro Agent’ with ambitions to create her own products
In 1905, Sarah was still working as a ‘Poro Agent’ but moved to Denver, Colorado.
She nourished the ambition to create her own haircare products. While she worked as a cook for a pharmacist, she developed her knowledge on mixing products.
Madam C.J. Walker
In 1906, Sarah married her Charles Joseph Walker that she met back in St. Louis. Charles used to work in advertising and helped Sarah in promoting her products. They got married in 1906.
The same year, Sarah finally created her first product promoting hair growth, that she called ‘Madame C.J. Walker Wonderful Hair Grower’. She claimed that the formula came to her in a dream. Shortly after that, she stopped working for Annie Malone.
Sarah expanded her line with her pressing oil ‘Glossine’ , a vegetable shampoo but the most important thing in her business was to create a system to improve haircare practices. She named it ‘Walker System’ and it consisted of growing healthy hair by using her shampoo to wash hair more often, applying the hair grower, then the pressing oil and finishing off with the hot com.
A door-to-door distribution system with the help of ‘Beauty Culturalists’
Similarly to Annie Malone, Sarah Walker was selling her products door-to-door directly to black women. She recruited agents to sell her products and called them ‘Beauty Culturalists’.
She and C.J. travelled to the South and Southeast for over a year, to offer their products and her ‘Walker System’ by giving demonstrations in churches and lodges while improving their sales and marketing strategies.After travelling to the South, Sarah moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1908. It was in Pittsburgh that she opened her beauty school, Lelia College, where ‘Hair Culturists’ were trained.
The beginning of an International empire
In 1910, Sarah moved to Indianapolis where she built a factory, a beauty school and a salon.
Although her business was very successful and her products were distributed across the country, Sarah wanted to expand her beauty empire to reach more people from outside the United States.
By 1913, Madam C.J. Walker’s products were sold in Central America and the Caribbean.
In our next blog, we will cover how Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker became self-made millionaires and changed the haircare industry with their beauty empires.