At the turn of the twentieth century, Madam CJ Walker built a thriving business on hair care for black women. Journalist A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great granddaughter, discusses how Walker built her business, and her often controversial legacy.
JOANNE: So today on the show, we’re going to look at the tangled topic of hair in American history. We’ll find out why Americans knead buttons and even reeds from their manes in the 19th century. We’ll chat with one of the world’s top hair collectors, and we’ll hear from you, our listeners, about what message your hair sends to others.
BRIAN: Now, we already mentioned that hair can be very personal. It could represent identity and attitude, and perhaps because of that, hair can also be big business. No one knew that better than the woman who became known as Madam CJ Walker. She was an African-American entrepreneur who built a business empire out of hair care in the early 20th century.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Madam CJ Walker was one of those amazing American rags-to-riches story.
BRIAN: This is journalist A’lelia Bundles. She’s also Madam CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Born on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana right after the Civil War in 1867. A poor washerwoman until she was 38. Discovered a formula that healed scalp infections and helped hair grow. Made a fortune, and by the time she died in 1919 at 51, she was a millionaire.
BRIAN: Bundles’ mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all helped run the company Madam Walker started. Her father was even an executive in a rival hair care company. Hair care has been her family’s business for generations.
NATHAN: Now, Walker’s business was successful almost from the very start, mixing the personal and the professional. Thousands of Walker company agents sold shampoos, ointments, and hair moisturizers to African-American women across the country, sometimes, the Asians. All women of color went door-to-door. They also held demonstrations at private homes or churches.
JOANNE: So it sounds like what we’re talking about here is something along the lines of Mary Kay cosmetics, right?
BRIAN: That’s exactly right, Joanne, but before Mary Kay even existed.
NATHAN: Madam Walker was also a controversial figure, even during her own lifetime. That’s because she sold products designed to straighten African-American hair, and her critics would say, to make it conform to white American beauty standards. The best known is something called the hot comb.
BRIAN: But Bundle says Walker’s best seller was also her very first product, Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. This product and her whole business model grew out of something less controversial, Walker’s efforts to manage her own hair.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: She was going bald because she had really bad dandruff and really bad scalp infections because hygiene was really different 150 years ago. When she was born, people didn’t have indoor plumbing. They didn’t have electricity. They didn’t bathe very often. Necessity is the mother of invention. She was losing her hair and she needed something to solve her problem.
BRIAN: So how did she go about solving that problem? Did she just tried mixing different formulae that were bubbling in the bucket?
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Well, you know, now we walk into the drugstore and there are 1,000 different kinds of shampoos and everything that we take for granted, but then, there really wasn’t this hair care and cosmetics market. So you couldn’t just walk in the store and find something on the shelves.
Her brothers were barbers in St. Louis in the late 19th century, so she learned some things from her brother. She experimented with home remedies. For a while, she sold the products of a woman named Annie Malone, who became her major competitor. And with a combination of all of those things as well as working briefly for a pharmacist in Denver, she was really his cook, but he was able to analyze these various formulas and helped her figure out what she wanted.
She was selling door-to-door, traveling around Colorado with this very small black population that was there. And then her boyfriend from St. Louis, Charles Joseph Walker, moved to Denver and they got married. She became Madam CJ Walker and she was taking out ads, selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
BRIAN: I love looking through old ads in newspapers. I’m wondering if you could tell me what Madam Walker’s advertisements looked like.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Just look at my hair. You can see that I used to be bald, and now I have a full head of hair. The advertising industry was really just being born in the early 1900s when she was starting out, but she was already using her own image in her before and after pictures. She was using testimonials. Before I started using Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, my hair was an eighth of an inch long and now it’s down my back and I’ve been able to throw my wig away.
BRIAN: And she really had before photographs?
A’LELIA BUNDLES: She had before photographs. The very earliest photograph of her, her hair is very short and patchy. She used that as the centerpiece of her ad, and then on either side, she had a front view and a side view with her hair down below her shoulders.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: She looked like a very African-American woman, really full-featured, dark skin, and therefore like most of her customers.
BRIAN: So she became, of course, a remarkable business empire, really. Tell me the story of how she transitioned from one very innovative and energetic salesperson to a large scale business.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: I think she was like a sponge in terms of watching what other people were doing, because in 1904, when the World’s Fair was in St. Louis, the National Association of Colored Women, this amazing group of civic-minded women from all over the United States met in her church. And she watched how these women organized. And when she was ready to organize her sales agents, she told her attorney, I want us to structure ourselves like the National Association of Colored Women, with local chapters and state chapters.
BRIAN: And what about the agents themselves? What could a typical agent expect to bring in selling Madam Walker’s hair product?
A’LELIA BUNDLES: So, of course, it varied and it depended on the hustle of the agent. In the testimonials in her advertisements one woman said, you have made it possible for a black woman to make more money in a day than she could in a month working in somebody’s kitchen. And she said, I have agents who are making as much as $100 a week. Most, of course, are not making that much. Some are making 50. Some are making 20. Some are making 10.
BRIAN: There was some controversy about some of her products, right?
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Definitely.
BRIAN: The hot comb that was used to straighten hair, trying to make African-American hair look more European.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Absolutely, I mean you can’t get away from that. So, of course, she did not invent the straightening comb and that’s the myth about her. But there was a pressure, both internally and externally, for women of European standards of beauty.
And, you know, when we look at this through a 21st century lens, it’s very easy to be critical. But when you consider 90% of African-Americans lived in the rural South, and again, hygiene was really different. People didn’t have these options. They would keep their hair tied up all winter long. Women wanted to be able to do something else with their hair other than hide it. And so we have this complicated relationship with beauty in America. We still see it. You know, this pressure to conform to a European standard of beauty is still with us.
BRIAN: Why is hair such a lightning rod?
A’LELIA BUNDLES: Yes. You know, this is– you know, I will be 65 in a few days. And I am a survivor of the hair wars of the 1960s and 70s.
BRIAN: You’ve been through a lot, I’m sure.
A’LELIA BUNDLES: So in the late 1960s when I was trying to express myself as a young black woman, hair was very much a part of that expression. And I decided I wanted an afro. And my father was adamantly opposed to this, but my mother, who was much wiser about hair, took me to the Walker beauty school. And the Walker’s students rolled my hair up on permanent wave rods and fashioned a big afro, and eventually my perm grew out.
And I thought when I went from a perm to a natural, to my big, large halo of a natural hairstyle, I thought that we were through that. I thought that we had overcome that and women would be comfortable with their hair. And that pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. Some of it is just beauty and aesthetics and culture, and some of it is political. And I think that natural hair threatens people who don’t really believe that African-Americans should have full equality. I mean, I wish it weren’t that basic, but I think that hair is an expression of, I’m comfortable with myself. I love myself. And that is just too much for some people.
BRIAN: Now you’re a journalist, and you’ve written about your great-great-grandmother Madam Walker. Has your own take on her story changed over the course of your writing career?
A’LELIA BUNDLES: I think growing up, I was ambivalent about her because in the late 60s when other people had their views about Madam Walker and it was, she’s the person who invented the hot comb, I really was trying to step away because that wasn’t something that I wanted to know about. And then WB Dubois was my intellectual hero, and I discovered when I was in college doing some research his obit of her in the crisis magazine, and he had good things to say about her. And I said, well, you know, maybe I need to re-examine who she is.
And then I continued to do research. I discovered she had known all of these people who I admired like Ida B Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune, and that she was a political activist. That she was even called a Negro subversive by the Woodrow Wilson administration because she was so outspoken on lynching and on the rights of black soldiers. So once I was able to combine her entrepreneurship, her empowerment of women, and her political activism, then I saw her in an entirely different light.
BRIAN: A’lelia Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madame CJ Walker and the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker.
JOANNE: Earlier, we heard from Joseph Thompson, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia and our show’s researcher.