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Thursday, 23 December 2010

Happy Birthday ‘First Self-Made Millionairess’ Madame C.J Walker

On my desk at work I have one of those A4 diaries which includes a historic ‘on this day’ type fact for each day of the week. On Monday, as I turned the page over to this week I scanned – as I always do – the ‘on this day’ facts to see if anything Victorian pops up that I might be interested in.

There was only one Victorian entry, it was for today, and it was the birth in 1867 of one Sarah Breedlove, with a small description reading:
‘Hair straightener inventor and first self-made millionairess’

I have to admit, I was a little surprised, as I thought hair straighteners were a late 20th century invention, but I sought out a bit of information on Sarah Breedlove. I was quite happy when it transpired that she was an American, as, I know that so far my blog entries have been about English Victoriana, and so I was pleased to be able to give a little insight into what was happening elsewhere in the world.
This is what else I discovered:

Madame Walker
The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker, nee Breedlove, as the first woman who became a millionaire by her own achievements. Despite this great accolade, and as with so many self-made men and women of the age, Sarah Breedlove was born to a poor farm family on 23rd December 1867 in Louisiana, USA. She received very little education and, by the age of ten, had moved away from home in search of work elsewhere. By her nineteenth birthday Sarah was a widow and single mother, trying to support a young daughter, A'Lelia, when she moved to St. Louis, finally finding work as a washerwoman in a hotel.

In 1906, Sarah married newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker and changed her name to Madame C. J. Walker.

It was four years later, in 1910 that Sarah came up with the idea of straightening hair with a hot iron comb and ointment. This was a significant development, as for generations prior to this then-revolutionary process, black people had straightened their tightly curled hair on ironing boards; an awkward and dangerous process which left the scalp and face vulnerable to burns and damaged the hair. Sarah made up batches of her hair pomade in a tub and packed the mixture into jars to sell to her customers.

She went on to develop a variety of products for all manner of hair-related problems, from pomade, hair growing tonic, hot combs, and even toiletries, fragrances, and facial treatments which she sold herself, door to door.

To increase sales she organized agents in "Walker Clubs" who would take her products door to door on her behalf, therefore selling more, and soon she even opened up a shop, trained her own assistants, and even added mail-order sales to her business, which was taken care of by her daughter A’Lelia, who had worked with her mother from a young age. Later, Sarah expanded her empire by opening a beauty school that taught the ‘Walker Method’ of hair straightening and growing.

Also in 1910, she moved her business to Indianapolis and built her first factory. By 1917, Madame Sarah Walker was employing 3,000 workers in America's largest black-owned business and was making significant profits from the sales of her goods, and also from what had, by now, developed from one beauty school into a chain.

Her success led her to become a social leader among the black middle class and she opened Lelia College and a hair care laboratory to add to her growing chain of beauty salons in Harlem.
She was a generous contributor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as to St. Louis and Indianapolis charities. Her community work did not end there, however, as she also bankrolled scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute, Bethune-Cookman College, and Palmer Memorial Institute and supported and donated to black YWCA chapters and orphanages.

Madame Sarah Walker died from nephritis, (inflammation of the nephrons in the kidneys) on May 24, 1919 at the young age of 52.

In 1992, Madam Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

She has also been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, the National Cosmetology Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York and the National Direct Sales Hall of Fame.

On 28 January 1998 the United States Postal Service, as part of its Black Heritage Series, issued the Madam C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp.

Last word to the woman herself, who, of course can describe her achievements much better than I can:

"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations...I have built my own factory on my own ground."
  Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912

On another topic, this is probably my last post before Christmas day so happy Christmas to all readers, thanks for all comments, page-views and more importantly – continued interest since I began this BLOG in September, and thanks to all those who I converse with on Twitter, best of the season to all.


  1. Just discovered your blog--love it! My blog, AttaGirl, circa 1900, features Madame C.J. Walker this week (3/10/11) in my "10 Cool Women You've (Likely) Never Heard Of" in honor of National History Month.

  2. Thanks for stumbling upon us and taking the time to comment!
    There are, as you correctly predicted in the title of your post, "10 Cool Women You've (Likely) Never Heard Of" some women on your blog I am not familiar with, an interesting post.

    You may also wish to click on the 'Women' label of this blog, where a few other Victorian ladies reside!

    Thanks for reading and commenting.