To get the word out, Walker also was masterful in leveraging the power of America’s burgeoning independent black newspapers (in some cases, her ads kept them afloat). It was hard to miss Madam Walker whenever reading up on the latest news, and in her placements, she was a pioneer at using black women — actually, herself — as the faces in both her before and after shots, when others had typically reserved the latter for white women only (That was the dream, wasn’t it? the photos implied).
At the same time, Walker had the foresight to incorporate in 1910, and even when she couldn’t attract big-name backers, she invested $10,000 of her own money, making herself sole shareholder of the new Walker Manufacturing Co., headquartered at a state-of-the-art factory and school in Indianapolis, itself a major distribution hub.
Perhaps most important, Madam Walker transformed her customers into evangelical agents, who, for a handsome commission, multiplied her ability to reach new markets while providing them with avenues up out of poverty, much like Turnbo had provided her. In short order, Walker’s company had trained some 40,000 “Walker Agents” at an ever-expanding number of hair-culture colleges she founded or set up through already established black institutions. And there was a whole “Walker System” for them to learn, from vegetable shampoos to cold creams, witch hazel, diets and those controversial hot combs.
Contrary to legend, Madam Walker didn’t invent the hot comb. According to A’Lelia Bundles’ biography of Walker in Black Women in America, a Frenchman, Marcel Grateau, popularized it in Europe in the 1870s, and even Sears and Bloomingdale’s advertised the hair-straightening styling tool in their catalogs in the 1880s. But Walker did improve the hot comb with wider teeth, and as a result of its popularity, sales sizzled.
Careful to position herself as a “hair culturalist,” Walker was building a vast social network of consumer-agents united by their dreams of looking — and thus feeling — different, from the heartland of America to the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Whether it stimulated emulation or empowerment was the debate — and in many ways it still is. One thing, though, was for sure: It was big business. No — huge! “Open your own shop; secure prosperity and freedom,” one of Madam Walker’s brochures announced. Those who enrolled in “Lelia College” even received a diploma.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Walker had the Mona Lisa of black-beauty brands. Among the most ridiculous knockoffs was the white-owned “Madam Mamie Hightower” company. To keep others at bay, Walker insisted on placing a special seal with her likeness on every package. So successful, so quickly, was Walker in solidifying her presence in the consumer’s mind that when her marriage to C.J. fell apart in 1912, she insisted on keeping his name. After all, she’d already made it more famous.
To keep her agents more loyal, Walker organized them into a national association and offered cash incentives to those who promoted her values. In the same way, she organized the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. “I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself,” Walker said in 1914. “I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.” And for her it wasn’t just about pay; Walker wanted to train her fellow black women to be refined. As she explained in her 1915 manual, Hints to Agents, “Open your windows — air it well … Keep your teeth clean in order that [your] breath might be sweet … See that your fingernails are kept clean, as that is a mark of refinement.”
Reading this, I instantly thought of Booker T. Washington, “the wizard of Tuskegee,” who, while troubled by the black beauty industry, shared Walker’s obsession with cleanliness. In fact, Washington made it critical to his school’s curriculum, preaching “the gospel of the toothbrush,” writes Suellen Hoy in her interesting history, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. “I never see … an unpainted or unwhitewashed house that I do not want to paint or whitewash it,” Washington himself wrote in his memoir, Up From Slavery.