Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madame C.J. Walker, is best known for her hair growth and conditioning products and is often celebrated as the first black woman entrepreneur who created hair care products especially for black women. Although she was not the first or only of her time, she did make impressive contributions to the world of hair. She once said, “”I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.” Here is her story…
Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, 1867 – 1919: An African-American inventor, saleswoman, business entrepreneur, business executive, and philanthropist
Born to sharecroppers who had been slaves, Sarah Breedlove worked in the cotton fields from early childhood. She was orphaned at six years old and went to Mississippi to live with her older sister Louvenia, but had to marry at fourteen to escape her sister’s abusive husband. By twenty, Sarah was widowed with a two-year-old daughter; she moved to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers, and found work as a washerwoman making $1.50 a day. She was determined that her daughter would be more literate than she, so she worked long and hard hours to put her daughter through school, including Knoxville College in Tennessee. Friendships with other black women who were members of St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the National Association of Colored Women exposed her to a new way of viewing the world.
But working over hot tubs with harsh chemicals, and with the hair products of the time, Sarah begin to lose her hair.
Contributions to hair
This caused her to experiment with many homemade remedies and store-bought products, including those made by Annie Malone. In fact, she was so inspired by Malone’s products that in 1905 she moved to Denver to become a sales agent for Poro, Annie Malone’s West African hair care and beauty products for black women. Using the knowledge she learned from Annie Malone’s hair care products as inspiration, Sarah invented a secret formula for hair growth and began using it herself. She claimed that she had been shown this secret product (also from Africa) by a dream and she had begun preparing and selling the “Wonderful Hair Grower” (very similar to Annie Malone’s “Great Wonderful Hair Grower.” However, some biographies say that as a result of severe dandruff and a scalp disease from washing her hair only once a month, consulted with a Denver pharmacist while still working for Annie Malone who analyzed Malone’s formula and helped Sarah formulate her own products. This growth ointment, a hair oil, a psoriasis scalp treatment, and the hot comb became known as the “Walker System” to straighten hair of black women. She used herself as the model for her advertisements.
About the “Walker System”
The elements of the System were a shampoo, a pomade “hair-grower”, vigorous brushing, and the application of heated iron combs to the hair. The “method” transformed stubborn, lusterless hair into shining smoothness. The Madame C. J. Walker manufacturing Company employed principally women who, before the years that preceded the national growth of beauty shops in the United States, carried their treatments to the home. Known as “Walker Agents,” they became familiar figures throughout the United States and Caribbean where they made their “house calls”, always dressed in the characteristic white shirtwaists tucked into long black skirts and carrying the black satchels, containing preparations and combing apparatus necessary for dressing hair. The most important of the preparations demonstrated was Madame C.J. Walker’s Hair Grower. Sales of the Pomade and a collection of sixteen other beauty products, many packaged decoratively in tin containers who carried the portrait of Madame Walker, accompanied by heavy advertising in mainly Black newspapers and magazines and her own frequent instructional tours, made Madame Walker one of the best known African American women in the country by the 1920’s. Her fame spread to Europe, where the Walker System coiffure of dancer Josephine Baker so fascinated Parisians in the 1920’s that a French company produced a comparable pomade, calling it Baker-Fix.
Sarah worked, again, in a laundry, and sold her products as a sideline. The products began to be more and more successful. About this time, Sarah met Charles J. Walker, a publicist with newspaper experience, and he began advising her on how to better promote and advertise her hair care products. The two married, and she — perhaps at his suggestion — began using the name Madam C. J. Walker professionally. To promote her products, the new “Madam C.J. Walker” traveled for a year and a half on a dizzying crusade throughout the heavily black South and Southeast, selling her products door to door, demonstrating her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she temporarily moved her base to Pittsburgh where she opened Lelia College to train Walker “hair culturists.”
While Charles Walker stayed in Denver and promoted the hair care products, Madam Walker sold her products door-to-door there, and then began traveling to parts of the South and East to demonstrate and sell the products, finding a larger market. She moved from personally selling the products to demonstrating them to others she called agents and training them in how to use and sell them. These agents often operated their own beauty care businesses, from which they sold the products and used the Walker system, and through encouraging these small entrepreneurships, Madam Walker’s business continued to grow. Charles Walker resisted further expansion of the business, and they separated.
By 1908, Madam Walker had established Lelia College in Pittsburgh to train beauticians in using the Walker System. Lelia moved to Pittsburgh to manage the business in that area. When Madam C. J. Walker visited Indianapolis, she realized that its location and access to transportation systems made it the right place for company headquarters, and she moved the offices there. She built a manufacturing plant in Indianapolis at the headquarters, and added training and research facilities. She divorced Charles Walker in 1912. Madam C. J. Walker hired Freeman Random to run the Indianapolis operation in 1913, and at Lelia’s urging, opened a second Lelia College there.
Something you may not know: Madam Walker’s treatment did not straighten hair. Her treatment was designed to heal scalp disease through more frequent shampooing. massage and the application of an ointment consisting of petrolatum and a medicinal sulfur. Madam Walker did use a hot comb–which she did NOT invent–in her system, but she was by no means the first person to employ such methods. She adapted the hot comb of the day to have more widely-spaced teeth, to accommodate the coarser and heavier hair of African Americans. In fact, Marcel Grateau, a Parisian, was using heated metal hair care implements as early as 1872, and hot combs were available in Sears and Bloomingdale’s catalogues in the 1890s, presumably designed for white women.”
The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, of which Madame Walker was president and sole owner, provided employment for some three thousand persons. Her sales force, a multi-level sales operation, had, by her claim, in 1919, more than 20,000 agents.” Overnight she found herself in business, with assistants, agents, schools, and a manufacturing company. Madame Walker’s daughter purchased a townhouse in Harlem in 1913 and Madame Waker moved to New York in 1916.
A generous donor to black charities, Walker encouraged her agents to support black philanthropic work. She made the single largest donation to the successful 1918 effort by the National Association of Colored Women to purchase the home of Frederick Douglass so it could be preserved as a museum. She contributed generously to the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), to homes for the aged in St. Louis and Indianapolis, to needy in Indianapolis (especially during Christmas time), and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Indianapolis. She funded scholarships for young women and men at Tuskegee Institute and contributed to Palmer Memorial Institute, a private secondary school for blacks in Sedalia, North Carolina, founded by her close friend Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Walker organized her agents into “Walker Clubs” in 1916, in preparation for her 1917 convention, and gave cash prizes to the clubs that did the largest amount of community philanthropic work. At the annual convention of Walker agents she always gave prizes most to the most generous local affiliate. Walker required her agents to sign contracts specifying not only the exclusive use of her company’s products and methods, but binding them also to a hygienic regimen which anticipated the practices into state cosmetology laws. In frequent visits and communications to her agents she preached “cleanliness and loveliness” as assets and aids to self-respect and racial advance. An editorial of 1919 in Crisis (the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) judged that Madame Walker had influenced in her lifetime a revolution of “personal habits and appearance of millions of human beings.”
To learn more about the contributions of Madame CJ Walker, visit The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences
End of Life
Madame Walker became ill while in St. Louis and was moved back to New York, where she died on May 25, 1919 of chronic interstitial nephritis, kidney failure and hypertension at the Villa Lewaro estate. She had been warned by physicians at the Kellogg Clinic at Battle Creek, Michigan, that her hypertension required a reduction of her activities, yet she had continued her busy schedule. Despite her impoverished beginnings, Madame Walker achieved notable business success. Funeral services were conducted at the villa by the pastor of her church, the Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of New York, and she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Shortly before she died in 1919, Madam Walker pledged $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. At the time, it was the largest gift the ten year old organization had ever received. Madam Walker’s will stipulated that Villa Lewaro should be donated to the NAACP after her daughter’s death. But when A’Lelia Walker died in 1931 in the midst of the Depression, the NAACP declined the house because of the upkeep and taxes. Instead, the small proceeds from the sale to Annie Poth were donated to the NAACP. Several generations of the Walker family continue the business she established.
The Madam Walker Building, which was completed in 1927 and is a National Historic Landmark, is now called the Madam Walker Theatre Center. The 944-seat theatre features an Egyptian and Moroccan motif. At one time it housed a restaurant, drugstore, the Walker factory, a barber shop and organizational and professional offices. Today it is a cultural arts center and houses a beauty salon and organizational and professional offices.
womenshistory.about.com/od/business/a/madam_walker.htm; webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/walker.html; www.mygrowthplan.org