The first woman in the United States to become a millionaire through her own work, Madame C. J. Walker (1867–1919) was a pioneer in the creation of cosmetics created specifically for black women. An African American woman herself, Madame Walker not only invented many products for black women's hair and skin, but, in the early 1900s, she also created a very successful business based on door-to-door sales of her products. Madame C. J. Walker cosmetics paved the way for later door-to-door cosmetics companies, such as Avon and Mary Kay. Walker was not only a successful business-woman, she was also a leader in the black community and a lifelong supporter of women's economic independence.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, just after the end of the American Civil War (1861–65). Her parents were farmers who had been slaves for most of their lives, and Sarah's early life was full of poverty and hard work. Her parents died when she was seven, she was married at fourteen, and she was widowed by the age of twenty. In 1905 she moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married a reporter named C. J. Walker. Though they divorced in 1912, Madame Walker used his name for the rest of her life. Along with working as a laundress and a cook, she began to sell cosmetic products door-to-door for a company started by another African American woman, Annie Malone (1869–1957). By this time she noticed that her hair was falling out, which was not uncommon for black women, who often had stressful lives and poor nutrition caused by poverty. Walker was determined to find a solution to the problem, both for herself and for thousands of other African American women.
Some stories of Walker's life say that she had an aunt who knew how to use healing herbs. Others say she had a dream in which a black man gave her the formula for a hair tonic. However it happened, Walker took $1.50 she had saved from her laundry work and began to make and sell her own hair product, "Madame Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower." She traveled throughout the U.S. South, selling her products and building her business. By 1910 Walker had opened a factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, to make the many beauty products she developed with black women in mind. She also hired hundreds of women, most of them African American, to sell her products door-to-door. In 1908 she opened a school for "hair culturists" who would sell and teach women how to use Madame Walker's products.
Walker contributed a great deal to the cosmetics industry, which was just starting during the early part of the twentieth century. Her products and sales techniques were original and were a model for many companies that followed her. African American women were often forgotten by white businesses, but they too wanted to take part in the glamorous, more liberated fashions of the turn of the century. Walker not only offered a wide variety of products for women who had had very few beauty products before, she also offered jobs and financial independence to many black women. At the time of her death in New York in 1919, the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company was earning $250,000 per year and employed over ten thousand women. The company survived until 1985, when it was sold by her heirs.