Today in History – December 23, 1867 – Birth of first self-made millionairess (Sarah Breedlove for hair straightener invention, products and services). Born in poverty in 1867 (left graphic is of her birth house) on the shores of the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana, her parents died of ‘yellow fever‘ while she was a young child of seven. Her parents, Owen and Minera Breedlove, were former slaves to “Robert W. Burney’s Madison Parish farm which was a battle-staging area during the Civil War for General Ulysses S. Grant and his Union troops”. Walker was an entrepreneur and made her fortune through her self-made hair products. She developed a product to straighten African American women’s hair. She claimed that the invention of her hair product came to her in a dream. Although it was thought she did this to help African American women conform their hair to that of whites, she argued that she created the treatment in order to encourage good treatment and growth in African American women’s hair. She began selling her product door-door. In due time she sophisticated her marketing approach and by 1906 she and her husband Charles Joseph Walker toured the country promoting her hair products. She moved to a mail order operation and established a beauty training school. “In 1910 they moved the central operations to Indianapolis, then the country’s largest manufacturing base, to utilize that city’s access to eight major railway systems.”
Although illiterate when she started her business, Walker took lessons in public speaking, penmanship and developed a striking personality, wearing fine clothing and employing a chauffeur-driven electric carriage. She was to establish a tradition of giving back to the community by contributing to African American orphanages, old-age homes, schools, colleges, and a new civil rights organization, the NAACP. The first self-made millionaires, Walker succeeded despite being an orphan. Madame CJ Walker’s contributions in hair care established her as a prominent role model to woman, still, today, as “one of the most successful business executives in the early half of the twentieth century”.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway‘s resources on women inventors, African American scientists and engineers or our engineering diversitywebsite. For curricular resources, visit the Chemical Engineering Educationcommunity site.
Also on this date in history in 1975, Congress passes Metric Conversion Act. Also in 1986, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager complete the first non-stop circumnavigation of the world, nonstop, without refueling their plane, the Voyager. For more information, see the Engineering Pathway‘s resources on metric conversion,airplane design and aeronautics, or Aeronautical Engineering Education.