Archive for the ‘Culture Site’ Category

Cosmetics have been traced back to as far as the year 4,000 BC in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. These early forms of makeup were made with relatively dangerous compounds like mercury and white lead. Everyone in Egypt wore makeup regardless of class, particularly eye makeup that usually consisted of green and black powders. One such cosmetic is known as kohl, used to outline the eyes and made up of lead, copper, burned almonds, soot and a few other ingredients, In ancient Egypt eye makeup was believed to, “… have a magical role, in which the gods Horus and Ra would protect wearers against several illnesses”(Ravilious). A few of these makeup products were made with chemicals that do not occur naturally and using stone and mortar, the limited technology available at the time, would have taken a minimum of 30 days of very hard work to make. In Rome female slaves called Cosmetae would, have made these compounds, or cosmetics.


In the Middle East cosmetics were used in Persia as well as by a number of Arab tribes, although after converting to Islam they restricted cosmetic use if they were being used to disguise someone’s real looks or to cause uncontrolled desire. Although there is nothing within Islamic law outlawing the use of cosmetics it is frowned upon. One of the first to write about cosmetics was Abu al-Qssum al-Zahrawi, author of a medical encyclopedia Al-Tasrif. In the 19th volume of the 24-volume book he wrote a chapter called “The Medicine of Beauty”. Within this chapter he talks about the various perfumes, scented aromatics and incense as well as what are considered to be the beginnings of what we now use as lipstick and solid deodorant.


China and Japan are known for a number of different cosmetics. In China people were using gum Arabic, gelatin, beeswax and egg to stain their fingernails in 3000 BCE. Unlike Egypt, where cosmetic use went throughout the classes, in China colors represented different social classes. For example lower classes were forbidden from wearing bright colors on their nails. Japan, and the geisha class wore lipsticks made of crushed safflower petals that were used to paint their eyes as well as their lips. Other forms of cosmetics included, rice powder for the face, Ohaguro to color the teeth, and bintsuke wax as a base or foundation.


Over time the use of cosmetics spread to Europe and played a significant role in the aristocratic classes before spreading to the Americas to become what we now know as the cosmetics industry of the 21st century. As one of the largest moneymakers in the world the cosmetics industry brings in billions upon billions of dollars every year from the sales of cosmetics. The irony in this is that although cosmetic companies in the US offer a selection of makeup for black women they fail to offer a variety of skin tones. This is a problem that many women face when finding makeup that blends with their skin tone. Often companies have a limited amount of variety when it comes to the offered colors and this is something that women with every shade of color skin tone have to face. As the cosmetic industry continues to try and catch up to the 21st century, the use of makeup continues to change throughout the world and throughout the different classes, cultures and races of people.


Works Cited-

Graham-Diaz, Naomi. “Immortal Geisha – Make-Up of Geisha and Maiko.” Immortal Geisha – Information About Japanese Geisha and Lifestyle. Immortal Geisha, Oct. 2001. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.immortalgeisha.com/makeup_01.php&gt;.


Ravilious, Kate. “Cleopatra’s Eye Makeup Warded Off Infections?” National Geographic News. National Geographic, 14 Jan. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/01/100114-cleopatra-eye-makeup-ancient-egyptians/#&gt;.


“History of Cosmetics.” Health Beauty Advice. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.health-and-beauty-advice.com/cosmetics/history-of-cosmetics.php&gt;.


“History of Cosmetics.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cosmetics&gt;.


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“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.” Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912

Born on a Louisiana plantation December 23rd, 1867, Sarah Breedlove (better known as Madam CJ Walker), transformed the African American woman by creating her own line of beauty products aimed exclusively at women of color. Orphaned at the age of 7 Sarah, along with her older sister, Louvenia, survived together working in cotton fields near Vicksburg, Missippi. At the age of 14 she married Moses McWilliams so she could leave her cruel brother-in-law. On June 6th, 1885 at the age of 18, Walker gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker). When her husband was mu

rdered two years later by a White lynch mob Sarah moved to St. Louis to live with her four brothers who were making their living as barbers. There was little work for a young single mother, much less a single black girl at the time but by working for as little as $1.50 a day as a laundrywoman she was able to educate her daughter and became involved with the National Association of Colored Women.

When Sarah began to lose her hair from a scalp ailment in the 1890’s she began to experiment with a number of homemade remedies and store-bought products, including products made by Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur of the time. During this time Sarah moved to Denver to be a sales agent for Annie Malone and in 1905 she married her husband Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman from St. Louis. It is at this time that she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and began her own business selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. The product came to her in a dream she had where she says a “big Black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” (myblackhistory.net). After sharing her new product with some friends she realized that there were very few hair products available for African Americans so she decided to go into business selling hair products to Black women.

Sarah took her product and went on the road for a year and a half going through the heavily populated South and Southeast selling her products door to door and in 1908 she moved to Pittsburgh where she opened the Lelia College in order to train “hair culturist”. In the school she taught other black women how to build their own business. After living in Pittsburgh for two years Sarah moved to Indianapolis where she built her own factor, hair and manicure salon and another training school. After less than a year Sarah gained national attention when she donated $1,000 to the building fund for the ‘colored’ YMCA in Indianapolis. This was to be the first in a long career in philanthropy for Sarah as she continued to support numerous organizations throughout her lifetime.

After traveling to Central America and the Caribbean to expand her business Sarah moved to New York in 1916. She left her Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis to her factory forelady and former school teacher, Ransom and Alice Kelly while she oversaw the business from her office in New York. As soon as she arrived in Harlem, Sarah became involved in Harlem’s social and political life by taking a particular interest in the NAACP to whom she donated $5,000 to their anti-lynching movement. Sarah even went to the White House in 1917, as part of a group of leaders from Harlem, after a white mob murdered over three dozen African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois. While there they presented a petition to advocate federal anti-lynching legislation.

In 1917, due to her growing business Sarah held a convention in Philadelphia for her Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America. This is thought to have been one of the first national meetings for businesswomen in the country. At the convention Sarah spoke to the women about how to improve their businesses, encouraged them to become politically active and rewarded them for their success. She told them, ” This is the greatest country under the sun, but we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible.” (myblackhistory.net). At the biennial convention of the National Association of Colored Women in 1918, Sarah was recognized for making the largest contribution to help save the Washington, DC home of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Sarah’s dedication to philanthropy continued throughout her life as she contributed to the NAACP, the YMCA, orphanages, retirement homes, black schools, numerous organizations and a large number of individuals.

Sarah commisioned her New York estate to be designed and built by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York and moved into her home, Villa Lewaro in May of 1918. She died a year later on May 25th 1919 due to complications of hypertension at the age of 51. Throughout her life, from the start when she worked in the cotton fields to her days as a political speaker and philanthropist, Sarah Walker or Madam Walker as she was later known, gave black women a place to learn a business and  take control of their lives. Not only did her products give black women a way to take care of their families by becoming part of her business but she also made a name for herself by being the pioneer for modern black hair-care and cosmetics. Her small chemistry experiment to find a way to save her hair helped her to become the wealthiest African-American woman in American as well as the first self-made female American millionaire.


“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success, and if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.” – Madame Sarah C.J. Walker


Works Cited:

Bundles, A’Lelia. “Madam Walker Essay.Madam CJ Walker | Official Madam C. J. Walker Biography. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <http://www.madamcjwalker.com/&gt;.


“Black Scientists in America- Madame CJ Walker.” Black History in America Home Page. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <http://www.myblackhistory.net/Madame_Walker.htm&gt;.


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