Great Female Inventors
Madam C. J. Walker

Madam C. J. Walker

Madam C. J. WalkerMadam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She was the daughter of Owen and Minerva Breedlove, former slaves who worked as sharecropper. Both of Sarah's parents died when she was a child and thus she moved from household to household until she was seven years old and moved in with her sister Louvina and her husband. Louvina's husband was abusive to Sarah so she ran away and married a man named Moses McWilliams in 1882. Three years later, Sarah gave birth to a daughter Leila but two years later Moses was murdered by a white lynch mob.

After the loss of her husband, Sarah and Leila moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Sarah worked as a cook and house cleaner. Unfortunately, all of the stress and hardship took is toll on Sarah and she found that clumps of her hair ha begun falling out. After trying several products which claimed to stop hair loss failed to work, a solution came to Sarah in a dream. In her dream, "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, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out." Sarah tried out her her formula on a group of her friends and discovered that their hair grew back as well. She further realized that there were very few Black hair care products on the market and she saw an opportunity to develop business, selling products to Black women. In 1905, Sarah brother died and she moved to Denver to live with her sister-in-law. When she moved to Denver she had only two dollars in her pocket but rather than give up her business dreams she worked as a cook during the day and worked on her business at night. She met a newspaperman named Charles Joseph "C. J." Walker and married him on January 4, 1906. Mr. Walker was known as a great marketer and the newlyweds set up the "Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company" and placed advertisements in Black newspapers throughout the country. The two worked successfully but had different views regarding the growth of the company. Sarah had placed all of her heart and soul into building the company and wanted to continue doing so. As such she divorced Charles in order to apply all of her attention to the business, but kept him on as a sales agent for the company, a testament to his capabilities. Using many of his ideas and principles (including using a door-to-door sales program) Sarah increased sales and eventually brought on her daughter Leila (a recent college graduate) as a manager.

With her daughter running much of the company, Sarah was able to travel across the country and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean marketing her products and developing new ones. As her company expanded, she looked to help other women break through the constraints of their own lives in a male dominated society and did so by hiring them for her company. In 1908, Sarah created Leila College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the school trained women to sell Walker's products door-to-door and within two years she had more than 1,000 agents working for her. With the growth in her in her sales force and in her business, she decided to move her headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana. Sales continued to surge and remarkably whereas Sarah McWilliams had only two dollars in her pocket nine years prior, Madam C. J. Walker had become worth more than one million dollars in 1914. She had created an industry to supply Black hair care products to a growing mass of consumers. Her products ranged from hair conditioners and hot combs to facial creams made specifically for Black consumers.

Madam C. J. Walker MerchandiseAfter years of suffering and heartbreak, Sarah had looked for a way out of her bleak existence and as Madam C. J. Walker, she not only succeeded, but did so beyond her wildest dreams. In addition to building her business, she also built a huge 34 room mansion off of the Hudson River in New York. Madam C. J. Walker died on May 25, 1919 and was mourned throughout the Black community as a pioneer, and innovator and an inspiration. For society in general, she was simply a great businesswoman.

 


 

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