Why you should care
Long before C.J. Walker made her fortune, Annie Malone revolutionized the Black beauty industry.
Tune in to Black Women OWN the Conversation, an unprecedented “speak-easy” TV show produced by OZY and the Oprah Winfrey Network, on OWN each Saturday from August 24 to September 14 at 10 pm (9 pm CT), and catch 100 Black women discussing beauty, motherhood, love and mind, body and soul.
Last month, California became the first state to ban discrimination based on hairstyle with the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, a response to several high profile cases where people of color were denied jobs or sent home from school for wearing locks or braids. Weeks later, New York followed suit. Meanwhile, Netflix has announced that it’ll produce a four-part series about Black cosmetics icon Madam C.J. Walker, starring Octavia Spencer and Tiffany Haddish.
But while we’re all remembering Walker — née Sarah Breedlove, a Black cosmetics entrepreneur who is often referred to as the first self-made female millionaire in America — let’s not forget about her precursors. Specifically her mentor and inspiration, Annie Turnbo Malone, a Black woman and inventor who built a cosmetics empire valued at $14 million half a century before the repeal of Jim Crow and long before Walker.
The daughter of former slaves, Malone was born in small-town Illinois just four years after the Civil War ended. As a child, she did the hair of family and neighbors; in high school, she discovered an interest in chemistry and mixing compounds. Malone had noticed that many of the people whose hair she worked on had scalp ailments, likely caused by the hair care products available at the time, which included bacon grease and heavy soaps. She started making her own products, working on formulas that would soothe scalps rather than irritate them and would stimulate hair growth. Toward the end of adolescence, Malone and her sister Laura decided to go into the hair business together.
Before the age of 20, Malone had developed her own shampoo formula, along with compounds designed to both grow and straighten hair, including one known as “Wonderful Hair Grower.” She sold her products door to door, riding a buggy around her small town to advertise and sell her wares. In 1902, she moved to St. Louis, where she opened a shop and recruited a fleet of women to sell her products in town.
Her focus was on uplifting women and giving them financial freedom.
Chajuana Trawick, Lindenwood University
“A lot of the business models that came after her like … Mary Kay … stemmed from Annie Malone and her agents,” says Chajuana Trawick, the chair of fashion and design at Lindenwood University. One of those agents was Madam C.J. Walker, who worked as a laundress and suffered from chronic hair loss before getting hired by Malone. Later, Walker would market her own “Wonderful Hair Grower” tonic using Malone’s formula, which prompted Malone to copyright her cosmetics under the name Poro. Walker and Malone would be compared throughout their careers, even after Walker’s premature death in 1919. Both would be credited with inventing the hot comb, though Trawick’s research suggests that neither invented it. Another difference between them, Trawick found, was that Malone’s products rarely tried to sell ideals of White beauty to Black women: Her single skin-lightening cream was for dark spots, while some of Walker’s products (and White-owned beauty brands marketing to the African American community) leaned heavily on ad copy promising lighter skin and straighter hair.
Malone, a deeply religious woman, kept her focus on the mission, which was nothing less than uplifting her community in St. Louis, particularly the African American neighborhood known as the Ville. “She wanted to uplift her community of women by employing them — she wanted them to have these skills and training so they could be self-sufficient and earn money,” explains Trawick.
At a time when Black women were largely confined to jobs of domestic servitude, Malone opened a large manufacturing facility that doubled as a beauty college, intended to train African American women to make and sell cosmetics. The plant also served as a community center and entertainment complex, featuring an auditorium where Black entertainers — often barred from other hotels — could stay in the dorms and earn their keep performing for the plant’s workers. Malone also donated tens of thousands of dollars to orphanages and Black universities. She’s said to have helped her employees buy property when banks refused them loans, and she paid to have the roads paved in the Ville. She opened dozens of Poro beauty colleges around the U.S.
In 1927, Malone’s empire was threatened by an acrimonious divorce when her husband demanded half her fortune. With support from charitable institutions, the press, church leaders and the president of the National Association of Colored Women, she won sole ownership of the Poro brand and moved her business to Chicago. By the 1950s, when Malone died in her late 80s, there were 32 branches of her cosmetology school.
Throughout her life, Trawick explains, Malone’s objective was not personal fame — it was something greater. “Everything now is about self-promoting and branding,” Trawick says. “Her focus was on uplifting women and giving them financial freedom.”
Correction: A source quote mistakenly referred to Avon (which was founded earlier than Malone’s business) as having been influenced by Malone’s work.