Born into poverty, orphaned at age seven, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty, she worked as a washerwoman for most of the next two decades. Madam Walker went on to become the first black woman millionaire and before women won the right to vote.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Madam Walker grew up in a time when it was difficult for black women to care for their appearance. Most had no running water and no beauty supplies suitable for their hair care needs. In a culture where the model for beauty was dictated by the Caucasian standard, any beauty supplies available were inappropriate for the hair of black women. The processes used to straighten hair were so damaging that they were painful and caused hair loss. Having experienced hair loss herself, Madam Walker started experimenting and developing preparations to nurture hair. She had an ideal of encouraging the masses to take greater pride in their appearance and start giving their hair proper care.
Madam Walker continued working as a laundress two days a week to pay for her infant business. She mixed her preparations in laundry tubs and sold them door-to-door. As she developed her business, she began training agents to sell for her for a commission and a share of the profits. In 1917, an average black woman made about $1.00 a day. By 1919, some of the 25,000 black women who were Madam Walker’s agents earned as much as $1000.00 a day, seven days a week.
She developed beauty colleges and beauty parlors throughout the United States, South America and the West Indies, where black women could go to feel cared for and beautiful. Madam C. J. Walker’s empire grew to include door-to-door, mail order and drug store sales, beauty salons and colleges, and manufacturing facilities.
Her first products were:
· Wonderful Hair Grower, which restored hair loss due to malnutrition and poor care,
· Glossine, a hair oil that would keep the hair manageable,
· Vegetable Shampoo,
· Temple Grower and Tetter Salve, designed to cure psoriasis.
· A Steel Comb with the teeth properly spaced to allow black women to straighten their hair. The comb was heated and with a special ointment was applied to it that made the hair easier to manipulate.
Madam Walker had hoped, that by improving their appearance, black women would gain a sense of dignity and self-esteem and therefore be able to find better employment. The result of her life was that she helped thousands of women build a better life and is a role model to all women.
There is much more to Madam C. J. Walker’s life than I have had time to tell you about. If you are interested in learning more, read On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker or Madam C. J. Walker (Black Americans Of Achievement).
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by Barry L. Fletcher, A'Lelia Perry Bundles
The original Madame Walker products are still for sale. Go to Madame Walker.net to find them.