Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone launched her hair care business and sold her products door-to-door. Although not as well-known as Mme CJ Walker, Annie Malone was the first to develop hair care products for Black American women at the turn of the 20th century; and that is why she is portrayed as the first influence to the history of black [natural] hair. Here is her story…
Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone, 1869 – 1957: an African-American chemist, businesswoman, educator, inventor and philanthropist.
Annie was born in Metropolis, Illinois. She was the tenth of eleven children born to Robert Turnbo, a poor farmer, and Isabella Cook Turnbo. Because her parents died when she was young, Annie was raised by her older sister in nearby Peoria, Illinois. She was a sickly child and missed a lot of school which resulted her in having to withdraw before completing high school. Though she did not graduate, she did discover she was good at chemistry.
While she was coming of age, the popular style among Black women was that of a “straight hair” look. Black women were starting to turn their backs on the braided cornrow styles they’d associated with the fields of slavery and began to embrace a look which, for them meant, freedom and progression toward equality in America.
Contributions to Hair
While in Peoria, Malone took an early interest in hair textures. In the 1890s — being a lover of styling hair — Annie began to envision a way of straightening hair without having to use the methods of old which included using soap, goose fat, heavy oils, butter and bacon grease or the carding combs of sheep. She’d also witnessed method of hair straightening which employed lye sometimes mixed with potatoes, but was turned off by the procedure because it often resulted in damaged scalps and broken hair follicles.
Coupled with the influence of her aunt who was an herbal doctor and her knowledge of Chemistry, Annie Turnbo developed a chemical which could be used to straighten hair without causing damage to the hair or scalp. By the time she was in her late 20′s, Turnbo had developed a straightening solution, and by the beginning of the 1900s, Annie Malone began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans. Armed with this revolutionary formula and a product she called “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower,” Annie moved to St. Louis in 1902. She hired some assistants and began selling her products door-to-door. Word of her products and teaching method spread like wild fire and soon her products and her “Poro Method” of styling hair were a success.
She eventually created an entire line of hair care and beauty products specifically for black women. Recognizing she needed a larger market in which to sell her products, Turnbo moved her business to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1902, which at the time held the fourth largest population of African Americans. In St. Louis she copyrighted her Poro brand beauty products. The city’s economy was booming in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair. As a black woman, Turnbo was denied access to regular distribution channels. To sell her products, she and her assistants went door-to-door, giving demonstrations. Business grew steadily. After a positive response at the World’s Fair, Turnbo’s Poro company went national. Malone called it Poro, a West African secret society located throughout Liberia and Sierra Leone. There also some elements of the term that indicate beauty. She and her assistants sold her unique brand of hair care products door to door.
Interesting fact: One of her sales agents, Sara Breedlove, used the knowledge she learned from her time working under Annie Malone, and started her own hair care line of products.
By 1917, as the United States entered World War I, Annie Malone had become so successful that she founded and opened Poro College in St. Louis. It was the first educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of black cosmetology. The school reportedly graduated about 75,000 agents world-wide, including the Caribbean. The school employed nearly 200 people. Its curriculum included instructions to train students on personal style to present themselves at work — walking, talking and style of dress designed to maintain a solid public persona. Malone believed that if African American women improved their physical appearance, they would gain greater self-respect and achieve success in other areas of their lives.
Annie Malone had several philanthropic interests, and by 1023 she had become a multi-millionaire, and shared her wealth with many organizations, especially those for children and education, and her goodwill extended from the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, included financing the education of two full-time students in every historically black college and university in the country – her $25,000 donation to Howard University was among the largest gifts the university had received by a private donor of African descent – and she purchased the now Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.
Malone was very generous with family and employees. She educated many of her niece and nephews and bought homes for her brothers and sisters. She awarded employees with lavish gifts for attendance, punctuality, service annoversaries, and as rewards for investing in real estate.
Malone also gave generously of her time in the community. She was president of the Colored Women’s Federated Clubs of St. Louis, an executive committee member of the National Negro Business League and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an honorary member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, a lifelong Republican, and a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
End of Life
Annie Malone began having financial difficulties that stemmed from a marital struggle that was kept quiet until 1927, when Aaron Malone filed for divorce and demanded half the business. He claimed that Poro’s success was due to contacts he brought to the company. He courted black leaders and politicians who sided with him in the highly publicized divorce. Annie Malone’s devotion to black women and charitable institutions led Poro workers and church leaders to support her. She also had the support of the press and Mary McLeod bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women. Having the support of so powerful a woman helped Annie Malone prevail in the dispute and allowed her to keep her business. She negotiated a settlement of $200,000.
In 1930 and entering her 60s, Malone moved her business to Chicago, where its location became known as the Poro block. Her financial trouble continued when she became the target of lawsuits, including one by a former employee who claimed credit for her success. When the suit was settled in 1937, she was forced to sell the St. Louis property. Malone’s business was further crippled by enormous debt to the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes. In 1943, Malone lost her company to a government lien and most of her holdings were sold. However, when Annie Malone died of a stroke in 1957, Poro beauty colleges were in operation in more than thirty U.S. cities.
St. Louis honors her memory with the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center whose mission is “is to improve the quality of life for children, families, elderly and the community by providing social services, educational programs, advocacy and entrepreneurship.” The street on which the center is located was renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honor.
Malone’s business failure tarnished her image. Her former employee, Madame C.J. Walker, often overshadows Malone because Walker’s business remained successful and more widely known. Walker is often credited as the originator of the black beauty and cosmetics business and the direct distribution and sales agent system that Malone developed. This is beginning to change, however, and Malone is now being recognized for her role in launching the industry.
Many historians believe Malone deserves more credit for her devotion to helping African Americans gain financial independence and her generous donations to educational, civic, and social causes.