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Madame C.J. Walker: America’s First Self-Made Female Millionaire

Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919), better known as Madame C.J. Walker, is regarded as the first female to become a self-made millionaire in the United States. In the early 20th century (as the Victorian Era was coming to an end), she and her partner, Marjorie Joyner, revolutionized the hair care and cosmetics industry for African American women.

Hard Work Was Key to Her Success

Although she said quality products were essential, she attributed her success to a combination of perseverance, faith in herself, honest business dealings and hard work.

“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she said, “and if there is, I have not found it – for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

Madame C.J.’s Early Path to Hair Care

Sara Breedlove was the first child in her family to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. She was orphaned by the age of seven, married at 14 to Moses McWilliams, and widowed at 20 with one daughter, Leila McWilliams, who was then only 2.

Determined to give her daughter a formal education, she moved to St. Louis, where three of her brothers worked in a barbershop. She initially learned about hair care from them.

Hair Loss Inspired Madame C.J.

Most Americans in the early Victorian Era bathed and washed their hair infrequently because they lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. When they did wash their hair, it was usually with harsh products, such as lye, that were often included in soaps.

As a result of a scalp disorder — either caused by these chemicals or escalated by them — Walker lost a lot of her hair at a young age.

She experimented with a variety of home-made remedies until she found a line of products offered by Annie Turnbo Malone to help her reverse her hair loss. Sarah became a commissioned salesman of Malone’s product line around 1904.

She later used her now extensive knowledge of hair care to launch her own line of hair care products. She moved to Denver where she married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper ad salesman who advised her in matters of marketing and advertising for her growing business.

Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower

Her flagship product was Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. She expanded her line and embarked on an aggressive door-to-door sales campaign throughout the South and Southeast.

The Madame C.J. Walker System

In 1910, Madame C. J. Walker established her headquarters in Indianapolis where she used her product line as the basis of a thriving national corporation that eventually employed up to 3,000 people at one time.

Walker’s dynasty included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, Walker Beauty Schools. a factory, and hair salon. She later developed a laboratory to conduct ongoing product research and development.

Madame C.J. Walker’s company later expanded outside the United States to several countries including Costa Rica, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica and Panama.
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