After selling her line of products from door to door and turning a room of her Denver home into her first salon in 1906, Madam C. J. Walker began visiting the black communities in Colorado’s small mining towns. Soon she realized her market was limited because of the state’s small black population.
She and her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, began to travel through the Southern, Eastern and Midwestern United States. After a year and a half they settled in Pittsburgh where she opened her first beauty school, Lelia College, which she named after her daughter Lelia McWilliams Robinson (who later was to become known as A’Lelia Walker).
They continued traveling and training sales agents. In 1910 she moved to Indianapolis where she built her first factory. By this time she already had trained hundreds of women in the Madam Walker System of Beauty Culture.
In 1913 after extensive travel throughout the United States, she visited Cuba, Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Haiti to expand her business internationally.
In 1917–the year before Mary Kay was born–she hosted her first national convention of Walker sales agents. Like Mary Kay, she gave prizes to the women who had sold the most products and brought in the most new agents. But she also gave prizes to the women who had contributed the most to charity. Then she took her leadership a step farther by encouraging the women to be politically active. At the end of the convention they sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.
By the time Madam Walker died in May 1919, she claimed that she and her teaching faculty had trained more than 20,000 Walker agents.
Her original five products–Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, Tetter Salve, Temple Salve, Vegetable Shampoo and Glossine–addressed specific needs. At a time when most American homes lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, hygiene practices were very different from today. Baths were a weekly rather than daily ritual because of the time and effort it took to pump water from an outdoor well, heat it on a wood stove, etc. Hairwashing happened infrequently: perhaps once a month for many and sometimes only once or twice during the winter. As a result, many women developed severe scalp disease, which resulted in hair loss.
Madam Walker encouraged women to wash their hair more often and to apply the ointments, which contained sulphur, an ingredient that long had been used by physicians and pharmacists to heal skin ailments like dandruff and psoriasis.
Over time Madam Walker began to realize that selling hair products was a means to a more important end. While her vegetable shampoo and ointments effectively healed scalp disease, it’s also true that her system of beauty culture gave her customers more control over the care of their hair. Soon she saw that there was more to what she was doing than selling hair products. She realized that she could empower women and helped them become economically independent at a time when racism and sexism consigned most black women to working as maids, cooks, sharecroppers and washerwomen like she had been for much of her life.
“I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself!” Madam Walker told an audience in 1913. “I am endeavoring to provide jobs for hundreds of women of my race!”
Her mission was about so much more than her Wonderful Hair Grower! Her mission had become to “grow” women’s minds and opportunities.
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Written by A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.