Many black women and men, who saw grooming as a sign of respectability and freedom, experimented with many hairstyles and beauty methods after slavery. Both black-owned and black-owned businesses responded to the varied hair to beauty needs of black customers. Black entrepreneurs fought for dominance within the black hair beauty industry. The Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company was founded by Anthony Overton in 1898. It became a success when it entered the cosmetics market selling “High Brown” powdered facial powder.
Annie Turnbo Malone’s Poro Company is one of the most prominent manufacturers of hair-care products made for black women. C. J. Walker, Madam, revolutionized hair care by developing a treatment to treat hair loss, which was a common problem for black women due to poor diets, dandruff and scalp disease. The Walker system, which uses a heated metal brush to straighten the hair of black women, was also pioneered by Walker.
Hair to Beauty Choices
European aesthetics were a part of the black community in many different ways. They influenced the context in which African Americans made hair to beauty choices. The black community was divided on the subject of hair and beauty. These debates were also dominated by black men.
Black women are the most likely to use hair straighteners and skin lighteners, but some black men chemically treat their hair to improve their curl structure. Black men had a relatively easy time caring for their skin. Razor-shaving facial hair can be painful for black men. Ingrown hairs on the neck and face, also known as “razor bumps,” were caused by their tight hair curls. This condition would get worse with each successive shave. Many black men opted to use harsh chemical depilatories for a beard to avoid this.
Many beauty industry workers believed that straightening hair and lighter skin was a way to counter negative stereotypes of black people. Some blacks supported this argument, arguing that changing the natural state of their hair or skin could be a way of challenging the association between black hair and unkemptness or poor grooming.
Others saw a direct connection between hair straightening, skin-lightening creams, and cosmetics with names like “Black-No-More”, and the acceptance and lack of self-esteem of black women. These blacks pointed out the damaging effects of chemicals on their hair, scalp and skin. They argued that allowing hair to be in its natural state was a way to honor their African heritage and challenge white dominance by changing notions about beauty. Marcus Garvey, a black activist and advocate for Pan-Africanism in the 1920s, refused to publish advertisements for hair straighteners or skin lighteners within his magazine Negro World.