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Black Cosmetics Pioneers

Learn About These Four Women Beauty Entrepreneurs


Black Cosmetics Pioneers

Sarah Spencer Washington.

Photo: Alfred M. Heston Collection/Atlantic City Free Public Library

You are probably familiar with the name Madam C.J. Walker, as a pioneer of black hair care and cosmetics. But do you know who Sarah Spencer Washington is? How about Madame N.A. Franklin? And did you know that Annie Turnbo Malone had as one of her sales agents, one Sarah Breedlove—later known as Madam C.J. Walker? All four of these entrepreneurs contributed to the creation of the first commercial products to really address the hair care and skin care needs of black women. In addition, these women shared the wealth from their businesses to not only inspire and educate women and men in the cosmetology field, they were also known for their philanthropic contributions to charitable, educational, community and civil rights organizations.

Annie Turnbo Malone (1869-1957)

Annie Turnbo Malone was born to former slaves in Metropolis, Illinois. Some historical accounts say that she dropped out of high school due to illness and others say to practice hairdressing, but by all accounts she had a good knowledge of chemistry and by the age of 20 had developed her own shampoos and scalp treatments to grow and straighten hair. She took to the streets to demonstrate and sell her wares. By 1902 her products were a success. She named her company Poro Products and moved to St. Louis, Missouri to expand the business. Poro is a West African (Mende) male secret society. Some have translated the word as meaning “devotional society". Poro Products became an international company with customers in the United States, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. In 1918 Malone built a four-story million dollar factory and beauty school complex in the historic St. Louis neighborhood known as The Ville. She employed over 175 people (including at one point protégé Sarah Breedlove, who would later become known as Madam C.J. Walker.) She became one of the nation’s wealthiest black women, a leading cosmetics entrepreneur, philanthropist and leader in the St. Louis black community. In 1930, the business was relocated to Chicago, Illinois.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)

Madam C.J. Walker was born to former slaves in Louisiana in 1867, the first child born into freedom. In her thirties, she suffered from hair loss and began experimenting with different hair treatments and products. For a time Walker worked for Poro Products as a sales representative and learned the business. In 1905 she invented a method for straightening black women’s hair and a formula for hair growth, which she said was given to her in a dream. She moved to Denver, Colorado where she married Charles Walker and opened her own business, selling her hair restorer through door-to-door sales. In 1908 she opened a second office in Pittsburgh as well as opening Leila College with her daughter Leila to train “hair culturists.” In 1910 she opened the company’s national headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, for manufacturing and training of the Walker Agents. Madam C.J. Walker Preparations, which included facial treatment powders and other cosmetic treatments created for and marketed to African American women made Madam CJ Walker one of the nation’s first women millionaires.

Read more about Madam C.J. Walker.

Who Created the Hot Comb? Annie Malone or Madam Walker?

The answer is neither. It is reported that in 1872 a hairdresser named Marcel Grateau used a pressing comb on his clientele in Paris, who were trying to emulate the straight style of ancient Egyptian hair, but it’s not really known exactly who invented the device. Annie Malone was the first to patent a hot comb. Madame CJ Walker improved upon the comb by widening the teeth for use on black hair.

Sarah Spencer Washington (1889–1953)

Sarah Spencer was born June 6, 1889 in Beckley, Virginia. She later moved to Atlantic City and worked as a hairdresser. In 1913 she started a hairdressing business in a small one-room beauty shop. She began to experiment with ingredients and later was granted a patent for a new system of straightening the hair of black women. In 1919 she founded Apex News and Hair Company. She worked in the beauty salon during the day (and also taught students the trade) and in the evenings sold her cosmetics throughout the city. 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.

You can read more about Sarah Spencer Washington at Press of Atlantic City.

Madame N.A. Franklin (1880-1934)

Nobia Franklin expanded a 1915 beauty salon into a chain of salons and eventually created one of the first major lines of cosmetics to include face powders that were meant to flatter, rather than lighten darker skin tones. By 1917 she opened the Franklin School of Beauty Culture and relocated manufacturing, salon and educational operations to Houston. In 1922 she moved to Chicago to open a salon and school and expanded the manufacturing of her business. Soon she began to teach others “the Franklin way” of styling hair using her products. Like Malone and Walker, she trained women to style and grow hair using her products and encouraged them to set up shops to style, straighten hair and sell the company's skin and hair products. The company's wide range of products included hair tonics, hair growers, soaps, pressing oil and face powder specially created for an African American clientele. She didn't quite reach the success of Annie Turnbo Malone, Madam Walker and Sarah Spencer, in part because she wasn't able to build as large a network of sales agents nor did she acquire patents for her creations.

Sources & Further Reading:

Black Texas Women: 150 Years of Trial & Triumph by Ruthe Winegarten (The University of Texas Press).
Styling Jim Crow: African American Beauty Training During Segregation by Julia Kirk Blackwelder, PhD (Texas University Press).
The Jim Crow Encyclopedia: Greenwood Milestones in African American History by Nikki L. M. Brown, Barry M. Stentiford, Editors (Greenwood Publishing Group).
On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Perry Bundles (Scribner). Read the review.

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