Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theater. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora that same year. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They secured a protective easement for the site, in order to prevent future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker. Earlier this month, the home was acquired by the New Voices Foundation, a leadership-focused organization that helps women entrepreneurs of color achieve their visions.

"Under the 25-year stewardship of Ambassador Harold Doley Jr. and his wife Helena, Villa Lewaro flourished as a monument to all that Madam Walker represented; the spirit of American entrepreneurship, perseverance in the face of adversity, and African American achievement," Brent Leggs, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, said in a statement. "We believe that the New Voices Foundation’s and Dennis Family’s stewardship of this site will not only ensure its future, but will lay the foundation for a new generation of entrepreneurs and cultural leaders to explore ways they too can preserve places that help to tell the full American story.”

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted Netflix series about her life, which is based on On Her Own Ground, a biography written by Bundles.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

This article originally ran in 2017.

Reconstructing History: Anna Coleman Ladd, the Mask Artist of World War I

National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)
National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)

Just before World War I, an artist and sculptor named Anna Coleman Ladd decided to focus her skills on another method of creative expression: She wrote a novel. The Candid Adventurer, published in 1913, tells the story of a portrait painter named Jerome Leigh who is obsessed with external beauty and unable to see beyond the superficial. The other main character in the book, Mary Osborne, struggles with a sense that she’s out of touch with the problems of the less fortunate. Her privileged social status keeps her “from the touch of life, from humanity in its grossness, its evil, its suffering,” even as her daughter, Muriel, tries to draw her out of her emotional isolation.

The Candid Adventurer offered a degree of foreshadowing for Ladd's own life. In just a few years, she would voluntarily remove herself from a comfortable existence as a celebrated artist in Boston and relocate to Paris, where a queue of soldiers severely injured in battle waited for her help in alleviating their suffering. Using all of the skills she’d acquired as an artist, Ladd crafted custom masks that restored their damaged eyes, missing noses, and shattered jaws. She invited them into her studio, made them feel at home, and allowed them to walk out with a facsimile of what the war had taken from them. What plastic surgery would one day do with a scalpel, Ladd did with little more than copper, plaster, and paint. She did so not only to please the Jerome Leighs of the world, who recoiled at damaged faces, but for the soldiers themselves, who feared they might never again be accepted into society.

 

Ladd was born Anna Coleman Watts in Pennsylvania in 1878. Thanks to her two wealthy parents, John and Mary Watts, she enjoyed an education rich in literature and the arts, both in America and abroad. She learned sculpting at the side of masters in Rome in 1900. When she returned to the States, women of prominence commissioned private works from her.

Watts’s social position, already gilded, was elevated further when she married physician Maynard Ladd in 1905. Since Maynard was from Boston, the now-Anna Coleman Ladd relocated to his hometown and attended the Boston Museum School for three years. There, she became a local celebrity for her paintings and busts.

Ladd stayed busy with her artwork and novel writing. In 1917, an art critic named C. Lewis Hind drew her attention to an article written by a man named Francis Derwent Wood. An artist by trade, Wood had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in his early forties. After seeing the brutally disfigured men who had been brought back from the trenches to be treated by his colleague, the London-based surgeon Harold Gillies, Wood opened the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in the Third London General Hospital, which soon became known informally as the "Tin Noses Shop." Wood’s intent was to pick up where the surgeon left off, creating cosmetic improvements using fabricated facial appliances that filled in the empty space destroyed by war.

Ladd was convinced her skill set could achieve similar—perhaps even better—results. Through her physician husband's connections, she was able to get an audience with the American Red Cross, which agreed to help her open a studio on the Left Bank of Paris. She arrived in France in December of 1917 and had her space ready for patients by the spring of 1918. She named it the Studio for Portrait Masks.

A soldier before and after being fitted for a facial mask by Anna Coleman Ladd
A soldier is seen with part of his chin missing (L) and after being fitted with an appliance by Anna Coleman Ladd (R).
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To understand why Ladd and Wood’s expertise was needed, it helps to contextualize the state of both warfare and medicine in the early 20th century. Combatants in World War I were firing and receiving heavy artillery from automatic weapons; grenades sent shrapnel flying in all directions. Because so many men were embedded in trenches, sticking their heads out often meant receiving direct or ancillary fire. Helmets may have guarded against lethal injuries to the brain, but helmets could also be shattered, sending pieces flying into their face. Of the 6 million men from Britain and Ireland who fought in World War I, an estimated 60,500 suffered injuries to the head or to their eyes.

With parts of their faces now missing or severely damaged, these men would be carted off the field and directed toward medical stations and major hospitals. Their potentially lethal wounds would be treated, but surgical restoration of cosmetic damage was still in a relatively primitive state. Sometimes, a patient who would require several surgeries to achieve an improved appearance could only be afforded one due to a lack of time or a shortage of staff. Gillies was a smart and insightful surgeon who pioneered some of the techniques seen in modern plastic surgery, treating thousands of men at Queen's Hospital, but it was impossible to perform revolutionary procedures for every wounded patient coming through the doors.

After being treated and released, the men often found great difficulty returning to their normal lives. They were self-conscious about their appearance and sometimes spoke of what they called the Medusa effect: Walking down the street, a passerby would catch sight of their collapsed cheekbones or hollow eye socket and faint. In Sidcup, England, where Gillies practiced, blue park benches near the hospital were reserved for men with disfigured faces; the color also served as a signal that the occupant of the bench might have an alarming appearance. The French referred to these men as mutilés, for mutilated, or Gueules cassées, for broken faces. Some were so despondent over their appearance they committed suicide.

It was these men Ladd sympathized with and was desperate to assist.

 

Ladd corresponded with Wood to gather information on how such facial injuries could be addressed through facial appliances. Though masks had been worn for centuries by people with deformities, no one had ever tried making them on such a scale before. It's been estimated that 3000 French soldiers were in need of such attention. To visit Ladd, they required a letter of recommendation from the Red Cross.

Ladd eventually settled on a process that involved making a plaster cast of the patient. First, she would invite them into the studio, which she insisted be a warm and welcoming environment. Ladd and her four assistants made the soldiers feel as comfortable as possible; she trained her staff to make jokes and not fixate on the visitors' appearances. Next, Ladd applied plaster over their faces and allowed it to dry, creating a hardened cast from which she could make a copy of the face and craft an appliance in gutta-percha, a rubber-like substance, which was then electroplated in copper. Depending on the work required, Ladd would also sometimes use a silver mesh plate covered in plaster. The missing or disfigured features were designed using reference photographs of her subject from before the war. The copper was just 1/32 of an inch thick and weighed between four and nine ounces. The mask might encompass anything from a missing nose to an entirely destroyed portion of the face, depending on the extent of damage.

Next came the step requiring Ladd’s skills as a painter. She used an oil-based enamel resistant to water and attempted to match her recipient’s skin tone somewhere between how it would look under clouds or dim light and how it might look on a sunny day. (Leaning toward either extreme would only lessen the illusion.) If a mustache was required, she crafted one out of foil. Human hairs were used for eyebrows and eyelashes. The mask was typically attached to a pair of spectacles hooked over the ears to hold it in place, or a strip hooked behind the ear.

The Red Cross produced a film (above) illustrating the process. In 1918, Ladd explained her intentions to a very curious press: “Our work begins when the surgeon has finished,” she said. “We do not profess to heal. After the wounded man has been discharged from the hospital we begin our treatment. Of course, the chief difficulty in making these masks is to accurately match both sides of the face and restore the features so that there will be nothing of the grotesque in the appearance of the covering. A mask that did not look like the individual as he was known to his relatives would be almost as bad as the disfigurement.”

The process took roughly a month before Ladd was satisfied with the result. Though her patients were primarily French soldiers, she made a handful for Americans, who—per the wishes of the American Red Cross—got expedited treatment.

 

All told, Ladd spent 11 months in Paris. Some estimates put her studio’s production at over 200 masks, but the figure was likely closer to 97. Considering how much time each one took Ladd and her four-person staff, it was a staggering amount of productivity, with roughly nine masks churned out every month. When the war concluded, she returned to Boston to pick up her commercial sculpting career. She was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her war service in 1932. She died in 1939 in California at the age of 60, just three years after retiring.

In the years following the war, Ladd gave lectures and spoke freely about her experiences fabricating these faces. She received letters from men thanking her for making them more comfortable with their appearance. No extensive study of these soldiers was ever pursued, however, and it’s difficult to say how the masks were incorporated into their day-to-day lives.

The items themselves were also not impervious to wear and wouldn't last more than a few years. Even if they did, the patient would eventually undergo a puzzling metamorphosis: They would age, but the mask would not. Eventually, the contrast between a flawless copper plate and wrinkled or pale skin would become too noticeable.

Some of Ladd’s subjects may have spent years in relative comfort. Others may have only had fleeting moments of normalcy, where favorable light and the company of close friends made them less self-conscious about what the war had taken from them. But in some measure, Anna Coleman Ladd had used her artistic ability to give them a respite from the misfortune that accompanied their bravery. Of those who were photographed wearing her masks, many were smiling.

Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

Stumping for Suffrage

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson's father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had "an allergy to children." A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy's dish." She spent the next few years fighting for women's right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn't pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

Hitler: "A Man Whose Countenance Is a Caricature"

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband's many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis's many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler's rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. "When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany," she wrote. "In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

While Thompson misjudged Hitler's appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson's 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were "unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality." It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

"My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all," Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. "That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris."

A Woman on a Mission

Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, "On the Record," which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies' Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler's movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University's first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women's club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn's accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson's popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in "a million boys' lives in blood and pain." Other detractors dismissed Thompson's "perpetual emotion," a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

The Grimmest Party Game

In the years that followed, Thompson's life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson's busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis's most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis's work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson's articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper's story "Who Goes Nazi?" found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler's brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. "Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi," Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. "It's an amusing game," she concluded. "Try it at the next big party you go to."

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