The Contributions of Madam C.J. Walker

Written by Leanna Serras

Before she became Madam C.J. Walker, Sarah Breedlove was the fifth of six children born to Owen and Minerva Breedlove, former slaves living in Delton, Louisiana. Her birth on December 23, 1867, made her the first Breedlove child to be born free. Sarah had one sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Owen Jr., Alexander, James and Solomon.

Despite being born free, her early life was not easy. Her parents both died before she was eight, and she was forced to work in the cotton fields to survive. At the age of 14, Sarah moved to Vicksburg, Louisiana, and married Moses McWilliams, who died in 1887 just two years after the birth of their daughter Lelia. She worked as a cook and laundress before marrying John Davis in 1894. The couple separated in 1903, and Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri. It was at this time that she began the hair care business that would make her a fortune; a fete that was unheard of for any woman at that time, let alone a woman of color.

Sarah began creating her hair care products for one simple reason-she was losing her hair. In an era when fragrances and cologne were becoming popular, Sarah developed three hair care products and began to sell them door-to-door. These products included the “Wonderful Hair Grower”, “Glossine” pressing oil for straightening hair, and “Vegetable Shampoo”. Her door-to-door forays also included instructing female customers on hair and scalp treatments, and it was this personal approach that won many loyal customers.

In order to expand her market, and avoid local competition, Sarah moved her company to Denver in 1905, where she married Charles Joseph Walker in early 1906. Henceforth, she was known publicly as Madam C.J. Walker, and kept that name for herself and her company even after the marriage ended.

By 1908 the company had relocated again. This time the steel production necessary for making pressing combs, for which Madam Walker had purchased a patent from the inventor, and the railway system necessary for her growing mail-order business, made Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the prime location. She also took the opportunity to establish Lelia College, a beauty parlor and training school for Walker agents. The women who attended were trained in the Walker Method of Hair Care, and upon completion were awarded the title “hair culturist”. This school allowed thousands of black women to earn a living.

With her mail-order business thriving, it again became necessary to look for a location to manufacture and transport goods. In 1910, Madam Walker built the first factory building for the Madame Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. Between 1911 and 1919, she grossed more than $100,000 each year, had as many as 15 employees in the factory, and had several thousand agents working around the country.

Madam C.J. Walker shared her wealth unselfishly, making large donations to charities, schools and orphanages. She began construction on a million dollar facility that covered an entire city block, and was five stories high. This building would house not only her company headquarters and factory, but also a African motif theater with 944 seats, a beauty salon, a ballroom, a drug store, a coffee shop and several offices, all for blacks who were discriminated against in a white society.

Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919, long before the building was completed. She left behind quite a legacy as the wealthiest black woman in the country at that time. The Walker Theatre opened in 1927 for blacks who were not allowed in some theaters. The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Madam C.J. Walker in 1998, and in 1999 she was inducted into the American Health and Beauty Aids Institution Hall of Fame.

More information on the life and history of Madam C.J. Walker and the contributions she made to the cosmetic industry is available at the following sites: