Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker: Pioneers of the African American Beauty Industry

Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker were pioneers of the African American beauty industry and groundbreaking entrepreneurs. Each woman developed haircare and beauty products, created beauty schools and launched highly successful businesses that employed hundreds of African Americans (mainly women). 

Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Malone was born in 1869, in Metropolis, Illinois, to formerly enslaved parents and orphaned at a young age. From an early age, Malone understood that for African American women, appearance and grooming represented more than their personal style. It could also indicate a woman’s class and social standing. She realized that improving hair health could also have a positive effect on the lives of African American’s. This motivation, along with her early passion for styling her sisters’ hair, inspired Malone to develop products to help women adapt to a society that judged them based on how they met the American standard of beauty (which excluded the natural appearance of most African Americans). 

Malone not only faced the challenges of being a black woman in a segregated society but a businesswoman in a sexist society. Undeterred, she began experimenting with chemistry and established a successful business after developing a line of products that were advertised to help improve scalp health and promote hair growth. Some of these products included scalp preparations and her famous “Hair Grower.” After early success in Illinois, she moved to Missouri in 1902 and founded Poro College Company.

An image of “Poro Corner” from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27

An image of “Poro Corner” from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27. 2011.170.18

Poro College was founded as a cosmetics school and named after the Poro society—a secret organization in West Africa that exemplified physicality and spirituality. Not only did Poro College act as a training center to nurture and style black hair, but it was also a significant source of employment for African Americans, especially women. Her “Poro agents,” ranging in ages from 16 to 80, were trained to sell her custom products and use the “Poro system” of scalp cleaning and hair nourishing. Over the company’s life span, there were tens of thousands of women and men sold Poro products around the the world. 

Confidential Poro Price List pamphlet for Poro dealers, 1918-1950

Confidential Poro Price List pamphlet for Poro dealers, 1918-1950

Poro products included cold cream, lipstick, and face powders in a variety of shades like “Poro Brown,” “White,” and browns in multiple hues. Among the list of “Poro Hair Preparations” available for purchase were Hair Grower, Special Hair Grower and Tetter Relief.

Poro College also provided a meeting place for African Americans and major black organizations such as the National Negro Business League to meet since they were denied access to most public spaces.

An example of “Poro Preparations” from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27

An example of “Poro Preparations” from a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company, 1920-27. 2011.170.18

During the 1920s, Annie Malone’s Poro brand soared, increasing the value of her company and making her one of the wealthiest African American women. With her newfound fortune, Malone donated large sums of money to philanthropic efforts around the St. Louis area and beyond to institutions such as Howard University. However, by the end of the decade, the Poro Company fell upon difficult times, due to a bitter divorce settlement, a number of lawsuits and the hardships of the Great Depression. Although her business survived, it was reduced to a fraction of its original size.

Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove, 1867) 
Like Malone, Madam C.J. Walker was also the daughter of formerly enslaved parents and orphaned at a young age. During the early part of her life, Walker lived in Delta, Louisiana, before moving to Vicksburg, Mississippi, following the death of her parents. Fleeing the economic, racial, and familial hardships present in Vicksburg, she moved to St. Louis. It was there where Walker found work as a laundress.

I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!

MADAM C.J. WALKER

Walker struggled with hair issues of her own and experimented with solutions. Walker enrolled at Malone’s Poro College and later became a Poro agent. Given Walker’s personal hair struggles and the training she received from Poro college, she was inspired to begin considering making and selling her own products.

After moving to Denver to sell Poro products, she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and started developing her own line of hair products. According to her biography, On Her Own: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, Walker received the formula for her own hair grower through a dream. Other hair products included her “Glossine and Pressing Oil,” and the “Wonderful Hair Grower.” Among other beauty supplies like creams and cosmetics, the most popular product was Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, which consisted of petrolatum, coconut oil, beeswax, copper sulfate, carbolic acid, precipitated sulfur and perfume.

Sign for authorized agent of Madam C.J. Walker Authorized Agent, ca. 1930.

Sign for authorized agent of Madam C.J. Walker Authorized Agent, ca. 1930. Gift of A'Lelia Bundles. 2013.153.6

In 1908, Madam C.J. Walker relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened a factory and hair school called Lelia College. At Lelia College, she taught women to become "hair culturists." Through the vast growth and success of Walker’s beauty empire, she became America’s first recognized, self-made female millionaire.

Both Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker succeeded in developing specialized black hair care and beauty products for African Americans. More impressive, each was pioneering entrepreneurs, creating highly successful companies - extraordinary accomplishments given they were black women competing in a segregated and highly sexist society.