Madam C. J. Walker was an African American businesswoman who made her fortune through a cosmetics and hair care business marketed at black women. She is recognised as being the first female self-made millionaire in the United States, although some dispute this record. Either way, her achievements are remarkable, even by today’s standards.
Not content with simply making her own fortune, Walker was also a keen philanthropist and activist, donating money to causes across the United States, particularly those which furthered the prospects of fellow African Americans.
Here are 10 facts about the celebrated entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.
1. She was born Sarah Breedlove
Born in Louisiana in December 1867, Sarah Breedlove was one of 6 children and the first to be born into freedom. Orphaned by the age of 7, she moved to live with her older sister and her husband in Mississippi.
Sarah was almost immediately put to work as a domestic servant. She later recounted she had had less than 3 months of formal education in her life.
2. She married her first husband aged just 14
In 1882, aged just 14, Sarah married for the first time, to a man named Moses McWilliams. The pair had one child together, Lelia, but Moses died a mere 6 years into the marriage, leaving Sarah a widow aged 20.
She would go on to marry twice more: to John Davis in 1894 and Charles Joseph Walker in 1906, from whom she became known as Madam C. J. Walker.
3. Her business idea sprang from her own hair issues
In a world where many did not have access to indoor plumbing, let alone central heating or electricity, keeping your hair and skin clean and healthy-looking was much harder than it sounds. Harsh products, such as carbolic soap, were used, which could often irritate sensitive skin.
Walker suffered from severe dandruff and an irritated scalp, exacerbated by poor diet and infrequent washing. Whilst there were some haircare products available for white women, black women were a market largely ignored: in large parts because white entrepreneurs had done little to understand the kind of products black women needed or wanted for their hair.
4. Her first foray into haircare was selling products for Annie Malone
Annie Malone was another pioneer of hair products for African American women, developing and manufacturing a wide range of treatments which she sold door-to-door. As Malone’s business grew, she took on saleswomen, including Walker.
St Louis had a large African-American community and proved to be fertile ground for the launch of new haircare products. Whilst she was working for Malone, Sarah began to develop and experiment, creating her own product line.
5. Annie Malone later became her biggest rival
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Annie Malone did not take kindly to her former employee setting up a rival business with a formula almost identical to hers: this was not that remarkable as the combination of petroleum jelly and sulphur had been in use for nearly a century, but it sparked animosity between the pair.
6. Her marriage to Charles Walker marked the start of a new chapter in her life
In 1906, Sarah married Charles Walker and adopted the name Madam C. J. Walker: the prefix ‘Madam’ was associated with the French beauty industry, and by extension, sophistication.
Charles gave advice on the business side of things, whilst Sarah made and sold the products, beginning in Denver and expanding out across America.
7. The business grew rapidly, making her a millionaire
In 1910, Walker moved the headquarters of the business to Indianapolis, where she built a factory, hair salon, laboratory and beauty school. Women made up the majority of employees, including those in senior roles.
By 1917, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company reported that they had trained over 20,000 women as sales agents, who would go on to sell Walker’s products across the United States.
8. She met with some criticism from the black community
The hair routine championed by Madam C. J. Walker involved a pomade (hair wax) that was meant to stimulate growth, a softening shampoo, lots of brushing, combing hair with iron combs and an increased washing pattern: all of these steps promised to give women soft and luxurious hair.
Soft and luxuriant hair – which can also be read as an alternative way of saying straight hair – was mimicking traditionally white beauty standards, often at the cost of the long-term hair health of black women. Some in the community criticised Walker for pandering to white beauty standards: she maintained predominantly that her products were about healthy hair rather than style or cosmetic appearance.
9. She was a leader in branding and name recognition
Whilst word of mouth and rapid expansion had helped fuel sales, Walker understood better than most of her competitors the importance of a distinctive brand image and advertising.
Her sales agents were dressed identically, in a smart uniform and her products were packaged uniformly, all featuring her face. She advertised in targeted spaces, such as African American newspapers and magazines. She helped her employees develop their skills and treated them well.
10. She was an extremely generous philanthropist
As well as amassing a fortune herself, she gave back generously to the black community, including building community centres, endowing scholarship funds and establishing educational centres.
Walker became increasingly politically active later in life, particularly within the black community, and counted some of the leading black activists and thinkers amongst her friends and colleagues, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
She bequeathed large sums of money to charity in her will, including two-thirds of the future profits of her estate. On her death in 1919, Walker was the wealthiest African American woman in the United States, believed to be worth just under $1 million at that point.