Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to parents who had been enslaved. She spent years as a struggling washerwoman but later achieved fame and fortune by creating a hair care line for black women. Walker was a talented promoter who often varied the story of how she came up with her products, but we know she was inspired by her own hair loss and a desire to serve the needs of other African American women.
Walker's own hair loss prompted Walker to seek a cure
In the 1890s, Walker began to lose her hair. Her work as a laundress likely contributed to this problem, as it exposed her to harsh lye soap, dirt and hot steam. Yet she was far from the only black woman to experience hair loss at the time. Many families lived without indoor plumbing, so regular shampooing wasn't possible and problems like lice and pollutants went untreated. Inadequate nutrition also made it difficult to maintain healthy hair.
In addition, many of the products used by black women, such as a preparation made with ox marrow, likely damaged hair and scalps. Some women wore head wraps to hide their bald patches, but Walker didn't want to follow that path. For one thing, such attire would mark her lower social status at a time when she sought to elevate herself. Plus, it was natural to desire a full head of healthy hair. So she instead embarked upon a search for a cure for her hair loss.
A product made by another black woman proved helpful
Walker was living in Saint Louis when she began trying to solve her hair loss issues. Her brothers worked as barbers in the city, which meant she could turn to them for some hair care know-how. However, they weren't experts on women's hair and scalp diseases, so she also tried out home remedies. In addition, she drew on her experience as a washerwoman and what she had learned about the properties of cleaners like lye soap.
Products she could buy were another resource for Walker, though at the time few items were tailored to the curls and texture of black women's hair. But Annie Turnbo's Poro line of hair care was different. Turnbo was a black woman who'd arrived in Saint Louis ahead of the 1904 World's Fair, where she would promote her hair care products and methods. Around 1903, Walker began to use Turnbo's products like the Great Wonderful Hair Grower. Walker's hair problems apparently benefited from this care and she ended up becoming a Poro sales agent.
Walker eventually came up with her own line of products
In 1905, Walker headed to Denver to sell Poro products and continued to pursue her own hair care solutions. She became a cook for pharmacist Edmund L. Scholtz, who may have helped her understand the chemistry of such products.
In 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker and began to call herself Madam C. J. Walker, a name she held onto after the marriage had ended. By this time, she had developed her own formula to heal scalps and spur hair growth. Walker stopped working for Turnbo and the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company started selling Madam C. J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower in 1906. Ingredients included precipitated sulfur, copper sulfate, beeswax, petrolatum (like petroleum jelly), coconut oil and a violet extract perfume to cover the sulfurous smell.
Walker once explained the formula of her hair grower came to her in a dream: "God answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it."
Yet Walker may have simply adapted her former employer's formula. Her creation was called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, close the name of Turnbo's Wonderful Hair Grower, and both products contained sulfur, used to treat dandruff and other scalp conditions. Turnbo was aggrieved enough to advertise that customers should "beware of imitations," but otherwise there was little she could do. As A'Lelia Bundles, Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer, noted: "If you look at medical journals, this mixture of petrolatum and sulfur had been around for a hundred years.… neither of these women really created this recipe."
She wanted her products to benefit black women, not change them
Along with her hair grower, Walker's early products included Glossine (a pressing oil) and a vegetable shampoo. She urged clients to shampoo more often and to follow her "Walker System," using the hair grower, oil and hot combs, to produce healthier hair. However, though she popularized hot combs that straightened hair, Walker's goal wasn't to alter the appearance of black women's hair.
"Let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair," Walker once stated. "I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair." The Walker product line grew to include creams and soaps, but Walker always stayed focused on the health of her clients' hair and helping women take pride in themselves and their appearance.