As you may know, February is Black History Month. To honor this month, I thought I’d share with you one of my favorite industry success stories. Enjoy!
One of the most notable success stories of the cosmetology industry, if not American history in general, is that of Madam C. J. Walker. Madam Walker was the daughter of former slaves and transformed herself from an uneducated washerwoman into one of the twentieth century’s most successful entrepreneurs.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Madam Walker was orphaned at the age of seven and went to work in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. To escape an abusive brother-in-law with whom she was living, Sarah got married at the age of 14, became a mother at 17, and was widowed by the age of 20. She went to St. Louis to join her four brothers who were working as barbers. She managed to create a living and find the funds necessary to educate her daughter.
During the 1890’s Sarah suffered from a scalp condition and began to lose her hair. She started to experiment with store-bought products and homemade remedies.
In 1906, Sarah married her third husband, C. J. Walker and became known as Madam C. J. Walker. She began to sell her scalp conditioning and healing treatment, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” the formula for which came to her in a dream, she always claimed. Devising sophisticated sales and marketing strategies, she traveled extensively throughout the South and Southeast, giving product demonstrations door-to-door, and in church basements and lodges.
In 1910, she moved her company to Indianapolis where she built a factory, hair salon, and training school. As she developed new products, her empire grew. She acquired a townhouse in Harlem that was regarded as one of the most fabulous private residences in all of New York. She also devoted much time and money to a variety of causes including the NAACP and the YMCA in Indianapolis and lobbied in Washington for antilynching legislation.
In 1917, she organized a convention for her Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America. This was one of the first national meetings for businesswomen ever held.
By the time of her death, she had established herself as a pioneer of the modern black hair care and cosmetics industry. She always traced her success to tenacity and perseverance, to faith in herself and God, to the quality of her products, and to her honesty in business dealings. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success” she commented. “If I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
In 1998 the U.S. Postal Service issued the Madam C. J. Walker commemorative stamp, the 21st in the Black Heritage Series.
If you would like to know more about the life of Madam Walker, you can read On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles (Scribner, 2001). Additionally, there is an 8-episode Netflix series in the works starring Octavia Spencer.