For many years, much of the beauty products sold to the black community, were made and developed by white owned companies. Which went just as well as you’d imagine. Most of them were designed to bleach skin and make it lighter in colour. Playing up to the idea, that the darker a persons skin tone, the more undesirable they were. This had some unfortunate merit, based in slavery.
It was an acknowledged fact of life, that slaves who had lighter skin were far more likely to work in plantation homes than those who had darker skin. And although slavery had been abolished decades earlier, these white owned companies were more than happy to harp on that light skin was best.
They advertised their products in regional and national black newspapers, with some going so far as to claim their products ‘removed black skin’.
Oh, and if this wasn’t bad enough, the ingredients in these products were horrific.
Mercury and lead were particularly popular and white salesmen actually wore rubber gloves when demonstrating the products. Because though they happy selling this shit to the black community, dear god they didn’t want this poison getting on their skin.
And the community fought back. In 1912, pharmacist Mrs. J.H.P. Coleman spoke to the National Negro Business League and urged them to stop promoting these products, which she quite rightly summaised were
‘Positive insults to our self respecting ladies.’
But obviously, just not buying this products wasn’t going to fix the issue.
So much of the racism and prejudice in Jim Crow’s America focused on protecting the white ideal of beauty and blocking any notion that to be black and beautiful could be a possibility.
How do you combat this? With
This was how many of the pioneers of the black cosmetic industry in the early 1900’s described what they were doing. They were not only going to come up with better beauty products, but they wanted to create a better culture of beauty.
If you’re a make up user, then you know that swiping on lipstick and blushing your cheeks isn’t just part of your daily routine, it’s a ritual that yes makes you feel beautiful, but also fills you with confidence and armours you to take on the world. Which is why the idea of the black beauty culture was so terrifying to white supremacists.
Because the pioneers of beauty culture weren’t just about to change the cultural landscape cosmetically. They were going to exfoliate the crap out of it, remove the long term damage that lay under the surface and create a fresh canvas on which to build something truly beautiful.
Annie Turnbo Malone was one of the first beauty culture pioneers. And, she had zero qualifications to her name. But she did have a love of chemistry and hair dressing. Which she decided to combine to create safe and effective hair care.
Now, this was a huge deal. In the same way many make up products aimed at the black community sucked, hair care was awful too! Many women with African American hair had no choice but to use products or home remedies that left their scalps not only itchy and irritated, but with a real risk of major hair loss. Annie’s products helped change that.
But Annie didn’t stop at inventing hair care. After all, this was just as much about creating a cultural shift as it was about the bottom line. So, Annie took her company, Poro and branched out.
In 1918 opening the worlds first cosmetology school that specialised in black hair and beauty.
One of the reasons this was so important, is that for many black women of the era they didn’t have a slew of potential career options at the time. For example, in St Louis, where the school was based, women were banned from all but domestic work.
Yet, Annie’s institution created not only new opportunities, but ones that didn’t exist before. It’s graduates going on to open their own salons and businesses. And it’s estimated that around 75,000 jobs were created through the Poro school over the next few decades.
For evidence of just how amazing this was, check out old copies of The Green Book (many are digitised online which is just *chefs kiss*), where you can literally see beauty parlours boom as the years tick on.
Ok, so what if you can barely braid and hairdressing and cosmetology aren’t your calling? Well, how about sales?
One of the big issues for black culture pioneers was that not many department stores would sell their products. So, they got round that by hitting in the streets.
Through Poro, Annie had a small army of sales people, who went door to door and town to town, selling her products (in fact of these women was Sarah Breedlove, who’d go on to be known as Madame CJ Walker and run her own army of sales agents)
While Anthony Overton, who owned Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company (catchy) had a smaller sales force who went to shops and small businesses to sell their products. Along with mail orders and advertisements in regional black owned publications.
By selling this way even more jobs opened up, just to give you an idea of how many that was, by 1919, Madame CJ Walker had around 25,000 sales agents.
Much of these sales forces were made up of women and as with the beauty schools, it was about creating transferable skills, just as much as boosting revenue. There were training schemes for prospective agents and those that completed their courses for Madame CJ Walker were given a diploma from her Lelia College of Hair Culture.
Creating the new
Along with the obvious finical and career benefits, advertisements for these sales reps also touted something else – change.
In one advert recruiting for Poro the headline reads:
“Be a Poro Agent. Be an active force for GOOD.”
This was very much going towards the idea of the ‘New Negro‘. An idea that grew with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1910’s and 20’s.
It was about throwing off the Jim Crow stereotypes and embracing racial pride, culture and self expression, along with rising political advocacy and fighting for change against racist ruling.
In 1925, The New Negro, published an essay called ‘The task of negro womanhood.‘ which in part discussed how the ever prevalent stereotype of the ‘grotesque Aunt Jemima’s’ helped tear down not only a woman’s self esteem but her role in society. Stating that:
‘the intrinsic standard of beauty does not rest in the white race’
Beauty Culture took all of this on board. Now doing triple duty of creating solid products and jobs, as well as bringing empowering the customer.
Many of the sales agents used their additional free time to join advocacy groups and clubs. This was reflected all the way to the top.
- Madame CJ Walker publicly joined the NAACP’s anti lycnhing movement
- Annie Turnbo Malone donated thousands to boost local charities and schools.
- Anthony Overton published The Half Century, which built itself around speaking out on African American issues.
By the mid twentieth century, white owned companies like L’oreal and Avon were now supplying safe beauty products for all ethnicities (though for cosmetics, the colour range was still not great!)
African American women were able to pick up make up and hair products with a lot more ease. However, the struggle for a fair and equal beauty industry still goes on today.
Although Madame CJ Walker probably remains the most prominent figure of the early black beauty industry. It’s story as a whole is one nobody should ever forget.
A tale as much of self entrepreneural spirit as social injustice and a revolution by way of rouge.
The people that worked in and built beauty culture, not only provided solid make up and hair care, but helped forge an entire cultural shift that changed thousands, if not millions of lives.
Further reading: Writing and researching this topic I came across so many fantastic books and papers, which I’ve linked to throughout the article. However, here are some that were beyond useful and I urge you to read in full (seriously they are so amazing!)
- Skin Deep: African American Women and the Building of Beauty Culture in South Carolina, Catherine Davenport
- The business of black beauty: social entrepreneurship or social injustice?, Simone T.A. Phipps and Leon C. Prieto
- Black and Beautiful: A Content Analysis and Study of Colorism and Strides toward Inclusivity in the Cosmetic Industry, Cynthia M. Frisby
- Annie Malone and Poro College: Building an empire of beauty in St Louis, Missouri from 1915-1930. Chajuana V Trawick.