The legend and legacy of hair-care pioneer Madam C.J. Walker are gaining new life for a new generation.
With the launch of a new line of products under the “Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture” brand, New York personal-care company, Sundial, looks to draw a 21st-century audience to an enterprise founded by Walker in 1906. Though these products have not seen major sales since the 1940s, they return to the marketplace with an historic and compelling story.
This reintroduction required not only reviving the brand but retelling the tale of a washer woman named Sarah Breedlove. She was born to former slaves in 1867, soon after the Civil War. After finding a solution to her own problems with hair, her entrepreneurial innovation and hard work transformed “two dollars and a dream” (literally) into a cosmetics behemoth with 5,000 sales agents, training schools around the nation and a line of products that netted peak annual revenues of more than $750,000 — or $17.9 million today. Madam C.J. Walker, as she came to call herself, is widely considered America’s first self-made woman millionaire, of any color, though Walker herself denied that distinction.
To make that connection to the past authentic, Sundial enlisted scholar, historian and journalist, A’Lelia Bundles, the founder’s great-great granddaughter, to help bring the brand’s story to life. Yet even Bundles, for much of her youth, was not as well-versed as one might expect in the details of Walker’s life.
Bundles, whose parents managed the remnants of Walker’s business in the 1950s, grew up with awareness of, but ambivalence about, her family’s background.
“I knew that the good china we used for dinner parties once belonged to Madam Walker, and there were other small things,” Bundles says. “But by the time I was born, the company was no longer a major player in the industry. Johnson Products, Soft Sheen and Summit Laboratories were leading the black hair-care market then, and my dad was eventually hired as president of Summit Labs. So I really grew up with Summit as the company I knew most.”
Part of Bundles’ mixed feelings about the family legacy stemmed from what was then a new interest in natural hair, sparked by the black pride movement of the late 1960s.
“In high school, people wore Afros and natural styles, and others had the impression that Madam invented the hot comb and hair straightening. I did not want to be connected to that. But I later found out the hot comb story was a myth. That helped.”
Bundles became more connected to the legacy after an accidental look at an old copy of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis.
“W.E.B. Du Bois had done an obituary for Madam Walker in that issue,” Bundles said. “It really celebrated her life and her impact. Du Bois was my intellectual hero, so that validated her story for me. That was critical.”
Walker “transformed a generation,” according to Du Bois. Bundles’ interviews with her dying mother filled in much of the history that was absent from books.
Bundles’ research eventually yielded her 2001 volume, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
That biography and further research provided the foundation for the advice that Bundles offered Sundial for its relaunch.
“They had a real challenge — to bridge the gap between people who know the brand’s history and people who are completely new to it,” said Bundles.
It’s a challenge to tell the stories of the old brand and the new brand to a generation that doesn’t always appreciate the significance of Madam Walker’s achievements. Many assume Walker’s success came much later in the 20th century. Yet Walker, who died in 1919, built a national business, with black investors and staff, serving black consumers at a time when plumbing, electricity and mass transportation were still beyond the reach of most Americans.
“I try to get people to imagine a life with no Internet, no Facebook, to understand the world she inhabited,” Bundles said. “I try to re-create that period in history between the Civil War and World War I. It was so significant for black people and their achievements in many ways, but so little is taught about that time. That becomes a real education for people.”
It’s not unusual for major mainstream cosmetics companies to acquire classic black hair-care brands. However, it was important to Bundles that her family’s history continue in a black-owned business.
“They’ve worked hard to incorporate the legacy into the new launch,” she said. “It’s black-owned. That makes me happy.”