Born almost twenty-five years after the end of slavery, Madame Sarah Spencer Washington made Apex Hair Products a household name in the African American community, and owned the Apex Beauty Colleges that were in many states across the U.S. She also published the Apex News. Not much is known of her, but she contributed to the history of black hair. Here is her story:
Madame Sarah Spencer Washington, 1889 – 1953: An African American businesswoman, saleswoman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist
Washington was born on June 6, 1889, in Berkley, Virginia, the daughter of Joshua and Ellen Douglass Phillips. She attended public schools in Berkley, going on to the Lincoln Preparatory School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Norfolk Mission College in Norfolk, Virginia. She also took classes in beauty culture in York, Pennsylvania, and later studied advanced chemistry at Columbia University in New York City.
Washington’s career began in 1905, when she went to work as a dressmaker, an enterprise she maintained until 1913. Although her family wanted her to become a schoolteacher, she insisted upon entering the then-new field of beauty culture, opening a small hairdressing shop in Atlantic City in 1913.
Contributions to Hair
She worked as an operator in her own shop during the days while going door-to-door in the evenings, selling the beauty products that she herself had developed. She also developed her own beauty system, which she taught to other beauty operators. Washington gradually accumulated patents for hair pressing oils and scalp creams that improved on existing methods of hair straightening.
In 1919 or 1920, Washington founded her own Apex News and Hair Company in Atlantic City, a beauty school that went on to establish branches across the country: in Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York City; Philadelphia; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; and Newark, New Jersey. She also founded international branches of her school, including an office in the Bantu World Bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. Each year, more than 25,000 students graduated from these schools. By the mid-1930s, the schools were graduating as many as 4,000 students each year. According to a 1946 newspaper report, more than 45,000 agents were selling Washington’s products, which had expanded to include beauty creams, cosmetics and perfumes.
From 1937 to 1939, Washington constructed her own laboratory in Atlantic City, where she made some 75 different products. Thus Washington had founded a kind of empire, in which beauty operators across the country learned to administer her system, using her products, while sales agents went door to door, also selling her products. By the mid-1930s the Apex Beauty Products Company was the largest New Jersey black-owned business and one of the nation’s leading black manufacturing companies. In addition to the cosmetics company, she owned Apex Publishing Company, which published Apex News for beauticians and sales agents, Apex Laboratories, Apex Drug Company and Apex Beauty College. 11 beauty schools in the US ad franchised schools overseas. Apex Beauty Systems Sarah Spencer, one of the first African American millionaires. She was awarded a medallion at the 1939 World’s Fair as one of the Most Distinguished Businesswomen” in the country.
Washington saw her system of agents as a public service, providing black women with a job that allowed them to become small entrepreneurs of a sort, selling her products on commission.
Concerned about unemployment and seeking to provide as many jobs to the black community as possible, Washington opened a number of other ventures, including Apex Community Drug Store and Apex Rest and Tourist Home. Although the stock market crash of 1929 was hard on Washington, as on so many others, she was able to rebuild her company and thrive for the rest of her life. In 1939, she was awarded a medallion at the New York World’s Fair for her achievements in international business.
Washington was a committed philanthropist, and she is credited with supporting a number of charities, including the Ellen P. Hunter home for Girls in Atlantic City, named for Washington’s mother, and the Betty Bacharach Home for Children in Longport, New Jersey, an institution that helped children from many races. She donated 20 acres of her own farm in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, as a campsite for black youth under the auspices of the National Youth Administration (NYA), one of the New Deal programs established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She even reportedly gave coal to poor families when the winter weather was particularly cold.
A lifelong Republican, Washington was elected to the Atlantic County Republican Committee in 1938 and served as a New Jersey delegate to the GOP national convention. She also supported many community organizations, including founding a school for girls that bore the name of her mother, Ellen Hunter.
End of Life
Although she suffered a stroke in 1947 which left her paralyzed, Madame Washington continued to provide for Atlantic City’s black community, founding an African-American Easter Parade after her efforts to dress two local girls in the best fineries still found them ignored by white judges at the Boardwalk parade. She died in 1953, at age 72.
By the time of her death, Washington’s enterprise was worth more than a million dollars and employed some 500 people, in addition to the 45,000 people who she claimed worked as Apex agents, selling her products door to door. She herself exemplified her company’s slogan: “Now is the time to plan your future by learning a depression-proof business.”