In 1904, Annie Turnbo Malone, the daughter of slaves who escaped Kentucky, combined a talent for chemistry and an interest in hair care to create the first non-damaging commercial hair care products for African American women. Merchants sold the products door-to-door under the brand name Poro and found high demand.
Malone was touring southern states and holding routine press conferences when Sarah Breedlove, a 37-year-old woman and herself a daughter of slaves, became an agent for her products. Breedlove, who had experienced dandruff and scalp ailments from caustic lye soaps, seemed a good fit for Malone’s company.
Breedlove, however, had a talent for business and ambitions of her own. After moving to Denver, Pittsburgh and finally Indianapolis, she became Malone’s greatest competitor and the most successful female entrepreneur of her day. In 1906, after marrying Charles Walker, she assumed the business nom de guerre for which she is still famous today: Madam C.J. Walker. At her death, mourners eulogized her as America’s first female self-made millionaire and the wealthiest black woman of her day. Her philanthropy endeared her to her community.
An Early History of Black Hair
Thousands of years of African history reflect the importance of hair. Hairstyles indicated family, tribe, status, and identity. Many African tribes felt their hair connected them to the Gods.
During the transatlantic slave trade, slaves brought their styling traditions to the new world. These styles included plaits, dreadlocks, and twists. In America, African natives, and their offspring lacked access to supplies and treatments available in Africa and improvised with what chemicals and products they could find, including kerosene and lard.
The dehumanizing value system of slave traders internalized color-consciousness and devalued darker skin and kinky hair. With the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, an urge to assimilate into the majority-white culture left black women with a desire for silky-smooth “good hair.” They turned to metal hot combs and noxious, boiling chemical mixes to straighten their hair.
Black Hair in The Civil Rights Era
In 1954, a man born in a three-room sharecropper shack took a loan for $250 to promote two products he invented earlier that decade while working for a chemist. Ultra Wave, a hair relaxer for men, and Ultra Sheen, a hair straightener for women, were the first two products made and marketed by George E. Johnson, Sr. and the Johnson Products company. Johnson Products would later make and market Afro Sheen in the 1960s, as the afro’s popularity peaked as an assertion of black identity. Johnson Products was the first African American-Owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Black Hair Today and Businesses to shop at
The era of afros and dreadlocks gave way to the Jehri curl, invented by stylist Jheri Redding, in the late 1970s and ’80s. During that time, celebrities like Grace Jones also popularized the flat-top fade. The 1990s and 2000s saw the dominance of weaves, braids, extensions and wigs that are still popular today, while natural hair is again surging in popularity. There are a number of Black owned businesses that sell hair products for the community and their specific needs.
Naturalicious sells a diverse range of Black Hair Care products. There are organic, vegan and cruelty free items for all sorts of styles, however a focus is on curly hair. Shop at Naturalicious
So Zen Spa is a Black owned subscription box service. This means for a monthly fee you will get a box of various personal care items, including hair care goods, sprays, perfumes, and so much more. Support Black owned So Zen Spa.
The Wrap Life sells, what else, wraps for your hair! They are colorful, meant for all head sizes and hair styles, and are a leading Black owned small business in the industry. There are hats, scarves, and many other clothing type goods too. Learn more about The Wrap Life.
While Madam C.J. Walker was a millionaire, black hair care is today a $775 million business. There are thousands of small black owned hair companies out there, both established and start ups. They sell products for your hair, shampoos, curling supplies and so much more Products lines by Dark & Lovely, Miss Jessie’s, and Carol’s Daughter compete for market share, each offering a unique blend of chemicals, herbs, and rare ingredients for all hair types. New entrepreneurs continue to look for magical hair formulas in the spirit of Walker and Annie Malone.