Adding to Sarah’s woes was the fact that she was losing her hair. As her great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles explains in an essay she posted on America.gov’s Archive: “During the early 1900s, when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity, bathing was a luxury. As a result, Sarah and many other women were going bald because they washed their hair so infrequently, leaving it vulnerable to environmental hazards such as pollution, bacteria and lice.”
In the lead-up to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Sarah’s personal and professional fortune began to turn when she discovered the “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” of Annie Turnbo (later Malone), an Illinois native with a background in chemistry who’d relocated her hair-straightening business to St. Louis. It more than worked, and within a year Sarah went from using Turnbo’s products to selling them as a local agent. Perhaps not coincidentally, around the same time, she began dating Charles Joseph (“C.J.”) Walker, a savvy salesman for the St. Louis Clarion.
A little context and review: Along the indelible color line that court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson drew, blacks in turn-of-the-century America were excluded from most trade unions and denied bank capital, resulting in trapped lives as sharecroppers or menial, low-wage earners. One of the only ways out, as my colleague Nancy Koehn and others reveal in their 2007 study of Walker, was to start a business in a market segmented by Jim Crow. Hair care and cosmetics fit the bill. The start-up costs were low. Unlike today’s big multinationals, white businesses were slow to respond to blacks’ specific needs. And there was a slew of remedies to improve upon from well before slavery. Turnbo saw this opportunity and, in creating her “Poro” brand, seized it as part of a larger movement that witnessed the launch of some 10,000 to 40,000 black-owned businesses between 1883 and 1913. Now it was Sarah’s turn.
The Walker System
While still a Turnbo agent, Sarah stepped out of her boss’ shadow in 1905 by relocating to Denver, where her sister-in-law’s family resided (apparently, she’d heard black women’s hair suffered in the Rocky Mountains’ high but dry air). C.J. soon followed, and in 1906 the two made it official — marriage No. 3 and a new business start — with Sarah officially changing her name to “Madam C.J. Walker.”
Around the same time, she awoke from a dream, in which, in her words: “A big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” It was to be called “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Her initial investment: $1.25.
Sarah’s industry had its critics, among them the leading black institution-builder of the day, Booker T. Washington, who worried (to his credit) that hair straighteners (and, worse, skin-bleaching creams) would lead to the internalization of white concepts of beauty. Perhaps she was mindful of this, for she was deft in communicating that her dream was not emulative of whites, but divinely inspired, and, like Turnbo’s “Poro Method,” African in origin.
However, Walker went a step further. You see, the name Poro “came from a West African term for a devotional society, reflecting Turnbo’s concern for the welfare and the roots of the women she served,” according to a 2007 Harvard Business School case study. Whereas Turnbo took her product’s name from an African word, Madam C.J. claimed that the crucial ingredients for her product were African in origin. (And on top of that, she gave it a name uncomfortably close to Turnbo’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.”)
It wouldn’t be the only permanent sticking point between the two: Some claim it was Turnbo, not Walker, who became the first black woman to reach a million bucks. One thing about her startup was different, however: Walker’s brand, with the “Madam” in front, had the advantage of French cache, while defying many white people’s tendency to refer to black women by their first names, or, worse, as “Auntie.”
Of course, many would-be entrepreneurs start off with a dream. The reason we’re still talking about Walker’s is her prescience, and her success in the span of just a dozen years. In pumping her “Wonderful Hair Grower” door-to-door, at churches and club gatherings, then through a mail-order catalog, Walker proved to be a marketing magician, and she sold her customers more than mere hair products. She offered them a lifestyle, a concept of total hygiene and beauty that in her mind would bolster them with pride for advancement.