African-American Women Inventors of the Early 20th Century

Socially significant personal care items

In
1898, Ms. Lyda D. Newman patented the first hairbrush with synthetic
bristles. Soon thereafter, two other African-American inventors
revolutionized hair-care and created an industry. These women were
Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, known as "Madame C.J. Walker," and
Marjorie Joyner.

Madame Walker (1867-1919) was a St. Louis washerwoman turned
entrepreneur, who in 1905 invented a method to soften and smooth black
women’s hair using hot combs, curlers, and pomades—instead of a hot
flat-iron. To market the system, Walker’s "hair culturists" sold her
products door to door, but also made hair-treatment housecalls. "The
Walker Way" spread throughout the U.S.; but Walker’s greatest coup came
on a trip to Paris, when Josephine Baker, perhaps the most popular
singer of the ’20s, adopted Walker’s method and started an
international fad. Walker died (aged 52) a millionaire, philanthropist,
and employer of three thousand [this a year before women got the
vote!].

Marjorie Joyner (1896-??) began to work for Walker’s company in Chicago
in the mid 1920s. Frustrated, because only a day after her treatment
every client "looked like an accident going someplace to happen,"
Joyner invented the permanent wave machine (patent #1,693,515 – Nov.
27, 1928). This was a dome-shaped device that applied electrical
current to pressed and clamped one-inch sections of hair, creating a
hairdo that would last a considerable time.

Joyner herself "never got a penny. . .but that’s OK" from her
invention, but later became Director of Walker’s nationwide chain of
beauty schools, and co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and
Teachers Association (1945). With their "Pay While You Learn" policy,
these schools have provided an accessible and profitable career for
thousands of African-Americans.

Others followed in Walker’s and Joyner’s footsteps, founding
beauty schools for blacks all over the U.S. . Jessie T. Pope of Detroit
invented the thermostatically controlled curling iron; patented it with
help from Eleanor Roosevelt (1946); and founded a company to
manufacture it (1958).

Walker’s and Joyner’s ultimate purpose was to improve
African-Americans’ appearance, confidence, and job prospects. It is
true that all Beauty Culture is somewhat artificial and arbitrary; but
it is also a fact that everyone then and now (especially employers) has
certain expectations. As Joyner put it, "a good personal appearance
helps people get and hold jobs. . . People need to make their own
opportunities, and appearance is important." Thus it is no exaggeration
to say that these women’s inventiveness and entrepreneurship have
provided significant social and professional benefits to
African-Americans. "Not for me, but for my race!" were Madame Walker’s
last words.

Advertisements