Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves, and Sarah, who was their fifth child, was the first in her family to be free-born. Her parents died when she was young, leaving her an orphan at the age of seven. After her parents’ passed, Sarah was sent to live with her sister, Louvinia, and her brother-in-law. They soon moved to Mississippi but at the age of 14, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams. She was in a very bad working environment and was frequently mistreated by her brother-in-law. In June 1885, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, A’Leila. Moses died 2 years later prompting Sarah and her daughter to move to St. Louis where her brother’s worked as barbers and she met her second husband, Charles J. Walker.

In the 1890s, Sarah began to lose her hair. Her work as a laundress likely contributed to this problem, as it exposed her to harsh lye soap, dirt and hot steam. She wanted to find a solution to her hair loss. Annie Turnbo was a black woman who’d arrived in Saint Louis ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair, where she would promote her hair care products and methods. Around 1903, Walker began to use Turnbo’s products like the Great Wonderful Hair Grower. Sarah’s hair problems were solved with this care and she ended up becoming a Poro sales agent. She headed to Denver to sell Poro products but continued to pursue her own hair care solutions. She became a cook for pharmacist Edmund L. Scholtz, who may have helped her understand the chemistry of such products.

Sarah eventually developed her own formula to help with her hair problems and stopped working for Turnbo. The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company emerged and started selling Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower in 1906. Ingredients included precipitated sulfur, copper sulfate, beeswax, petrolatum (like petroleum jelly), coconut oil and a violet extract perfume to cover the sulfurous smell.

Sarah’s husband, Charles, helped her create advertisements for a hair care treatment for African Americans that she was perfecting. Her husband also encouraged her to use the more recognizable name “Madam C.J. Walker,” by which she was thereafter known. Walker and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving lecture demonstrations of her “Walker Method” — involving her own formula for pomade, brushing and the use of heated combs.

Tin for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair GrowerPhoto: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.

As profits continued to grow, in 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, and by 1910, when Walker transferred her business operations to Indianapolis, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars. In Indianapolis, the company not only manufactured cosmetics but also trained sales beauticians. These “Walker Agents” became well known throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, they promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” as a means of advancing the status of African Americans.
Newspaper ad for Madam C.J. Walker Preparations

Newspaper ad for Madam C.J. Walker Preparations Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1913, Walker and Charles divorced, and she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean promoting her business and recruiting others to teach her hair care methods. While her mother traveled, A’Lelia helped facilitate the purchase of property in Harlem, New York, recognizing that the area would be an important base for future business operations.

Walker died of hypertension on May 25, 1919, at age 51, at Villa Lewaro. In 1981, the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company ceased operations. A line of cosmetics and hair-care products bearing the name Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture is available at Sephora retailers.

In 1927, the Walker Building, an arts center that Walker had begun work on before her death, was opened in Indianapolis. An important African American cultural center for decades, it is now a registered National Historic Landmark. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of Walker as part of its “Black Heritage” series.