In this second post on female entrepreneurs, we look at the world of health and beauty. I’ve decided to save fashion for another day because a couple of these women were just so fascinating they merited a little more space.

Potent Potables

Lydia E. Pinkham (1819–1883)
Lydia Pinkham, née Estes, was born into an extremely progressive Quaker family in the factory town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Pinkham’s father had become wealthy through shrewd real estate deals and Lydia was educated at the Lynn Academy and was a schoolteacher before her marriage. The family was strongly abolitionist and Lydia herself joined the Lynn Female Anti-Slavery Society as a teenager. In 1843, she married a shoe manufacturer and all-around failure of a businessman and real estate speculator, Isaac Pinkham. They would go on to have four children who all eventually became involved in the family business.

What was that business you ask? Well, Lydia brewed a home remedy for “female complaints” that became very popular with her neighbors, to whom she gave it away freely. When the family entered on hard times after the Panic of 1873, they decided to try to create a business out of her hobby. Eventually, production of the home brew was in a factory and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound became one of the best known patent medicines of the nineteenth century. Of course, this isn’t really surprising when you consider that medical treatment for menstrual pain, infertility, and other issues was practically non-existent. The original formula contained pleurisy root, life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, black cohosh, and a heck of a lot of alcohol. Although this might seem like quackery, the ingredients were consistent with the herbal knowledge of the day and, when the FDA tested the product, they found it an effective uterine medicine and that some of the herbs provided estrogen treatment. However, having to label the alcohol content starting in 1906 did take the shine off of the rose, though the product proved to be rather successful during prohibition. Go figure.

There is a baby in every bottle.

—tagline for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound

In addition to creating the brew, Lydia herself proved to be incredible marketer, putting herself on the label (the first time a woman’s likeness was used in advertising), writing most of the ad copy, keeping records on customers and their medical complaints, responding to everyone that wrote to her, and discussing frankly the “taboo” subjects of menstruation and menopause (the company’s first piece of advertising was a four-page “Guide for Women” pamphlet). As mentioned, she had help in this from her family, who continued the letter-writing tradition even after her death in 1883. At that time, her “female tonic” was grossing $300,000 annually—in 1925, annual profits peaked at $3.8 million. Mrs. Lydia Pinkham’s Medicine Company continued until 1968, when it was sold to Cooper Laboratories in Pleasanton, California. Pills and liquids based off Pinkham’s original vegetable compound recipe are still available in pharmacies. Sadly, they do not contain any alcohol.

Shocking but true, drinking an almost 40-proof “female tonic” can help with the annoying symptoms of “middle age”!

Good Hair Days

Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957)
I only discovered the story of Annie Turnbo Malone in researching Madam C.J. Walker; apparently, this is a common occurrence (see below). While not as strong in marketing and self-promotion as some other women I discuss in this post, Malone nevertheless deserves her place here as one of the pioneers of the beauty business. Malone, née Turnbo, developed an interest in chemistry in high school in Illinois and began experimenting with hair styling and hair-care products, which at the time could be extremely damaging to the hair and scalp. She soon developed and manufactured her own line of hair straighteners and stimulants specifically for black women, in particular the “Wonderful Hair Grower,” which she demonstrated and sold door to door. In 1902, Malone moved to St. Louis, Missouri, hired and trained three assistants, and continued to sell her products door to door, which was really the only distribution system available to her as a black woman. During the 1904 World’s Fair, Malone opened her first retail outlet. In 1906, she trademarked her “Poro” product line and began to travel further and further afield to demonstrate her products, particularly in the South. Wherever she went, she hired and trained local sales agents and by 1910 had expanded nationally.

In 1918, she built Poro College, a complex that included her business headquarters, manufacturing and laboratories, training and teaching facilities, and even a gymnasium, chapel, and theater. It is estimated that by the mid-1920s, she was worth $14 million. She donated large sums to various charities including $25,000 each to Howard University, the local YMCA, and the Tuskegee Institute. Unfortunately, the 1920s also resulted in a power struggle over control of the business between Annie and her second husband, Aaron Malone, whom she had married in 1914. In 1927, when Aaron filed for divorce, he demanded half, claiming he was responsible for the contracts that led to her success. (Dude, get over yourself, she was already a millionaire by the time you married her.) While Aaron had many local black leaders and politicians on his side, Annie had the support of Poro workers, church leaders, and Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Association of Colored Women. Guess who won? Don’t underestimate black women, people.

Annie Turnbo Malone in 1927 alongside a recruitment ad for Poro College

In 1930, Malone moved her business to Chicago, Illinois, buying up an entire city block. Regrettably, even though she had regained sole ownership of her company, her financial troubles became much more severe there than the $200,000 settlement she ended up giving Aaron back in St. Louis. First, Annie was sued by a former employee and had to sell her St. Louis property to settle the case. Then, she was taken to court by the government for unpaid real estate and excise taxes (hair care was classed as a “luxury” good) amounting to $100,000. In 1951, the government took control of Poro and sold most of the property. This business failure is probably a key reason that Malone is less well known today than her most famous employee, Madam C.J. Walker. Still, she remains present in the memory of St. Louis, especially through the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, an orphanage she helped build in the 1920s and supported for much of her life as a member of the executive board.

Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker) (1867–1919)
Like Lydia Pinkham, Madam C.J. Walker is another woman who put herself on the label to great success. Although she was not the country’s first black millionaire as often claimed,* she is nevertheless a great rags-to-riches story. Born to parents who had been enslaved on the Louisiana plantation of Robert W. Burney, Sarah Breedlove was the last of six children, but the first in the family to be born “free” (after the Emancipation Proclamation). Orphaned at a young age, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and lived with her married older sister, Louvenia, until her own marriage at the age of fourteen. Sarah had one daughter, Lelia, with her first husband (she would go on to marry and divorce two more times) before becoming a widow at twenty in 1887.

Soon after, she moved with Lelia to St. Louis, Missouri, where her brothers already lived. There, Sarah worked as a live-in maid, leaving her daughter in an orphanage and visiting her once a week during her half-day off. Once she had saved enough money, she got her own apartment, recovered her daughter, and started a laundry business. Sarah received a lot of support and advice from the community at her church, the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was known nationally for their missionary work. During the 1904 World’s Fair, this church hosted a delegation from the National Association of Colored Women and so Sarah met and was inspired by numerous activists on the national scene. It was at this time that she began selling hair-care products on commission for Annie Turnbo Malone, who would later become a fierce rival—an unsurprising development when you consider that Breedlove developed her own product line, which “came to her in a dream” while selling a very similar product. Curious…

In 1905, Sarah again followed in the wake of one her brothers, this time moving to Denver, Colorado. There she continued selling on commission, but, following her marriage to Charles Walker, a newspaper ad man she had known in St. Louis, she decided to start her own hair-care business under the name Madam C.J. Walker. Sarah now sold her own products door to door and soon was traveling all over the South with her husband to promote the business, leaving Lelia in charge of operations in Denver. In 1908, the family relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they established Lelia College, a school to train other “hair culturalists” in the Walker System—a system of hair maintenance that included shampoo, a hair growth pomade, and hot irons and combs.** In 1910, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company established its headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to a factory and research laboratory, the compound included a hair salon and beauty school to train sales agents. This is when the business really began to grow and Madam C.J. Walker became well known through her advertisements, which used her own likeness to show the results of using her products. Echoing those who had helped inspire her back in St. Louis, Walker also used her business acumen and experience to lift up others, showing the several thousand women in her employ how to budget, build their own businesses, and become financially independent.

Lifting as We Climb

—motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs

At this point, Walker really moves into her activist and philanthropist phase, traveling the country and telling her story. In 1913, she was a keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the National Negro Business League, a speaking opportunity that had been denied to her the year before by President Booker T. Washington (though, as you can see by the quotation below, Walker found a way to drop the mic anyway). Washington had been rebuffing Walker for some time, both because she was a woman and because he believed her products were helping to “whitewash” black women.** However, he couldn’t continue to deny her once her impromptu speech proved to be the hit of the conference.

Surely, you are not going to shut the door in my face. 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. I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.

—Madam C.J. Walker to Booker T. Washington and the National Negro Business League in 1912, after rising from her seat to speak to the annual gathering

Also in 1913, Walker began investing in New York real estate when Lelia decided to move to Harlem. Walker followed her daughter three years later and commissioned Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York City, to build her a magnificent mansion in Westchester County on the Hudson River. With thirty-four rooms, Villa Lewaro (from the first letters of Lelia Walker Robinson’s name) became an important social and intellectual gathering place for the black community.

Walker’s philanthropy took a number of forms: She was a patron of the arts, educational establishments, and numerous churches and orphanages, as well as the YMCA, the Tuskegee Institute, and the NAACP. At the time of her death in 1919, her estate was estimated at $600,000 and her will left two-thirds of her company’s future net profits to charity. Her daughter, who shortly thereafter changed her name to A’Lelia, became president of the company. A’Lelia also continued her mother’s tradition of supporting the arts, especially members of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker’s legacy continues today in the form of a Sephora line of products named in her honor and a soon-to-be-on-a-television-screen-near-you series starring Octavia Spencer.

The Beauty Biz

Helena Rubinstein (1872–1965)
Helena Rubinstein was born in Kraków, but left on her own to emigrate to Australia at the age of twenty-four. It is not exactly clear why she did this, she may have had a falling out with her immediate family, but she arrived with very little money or English. She did, however, have uncles, and initially settled with them in western Victoria, an area known for its sheep and dairy farming. This would prove to be the key to her later success since it is here that she discovered lanolin, a wax that is secreted from the glands of sheep to protect their wool and skin from the climate. A lover of beauty creams and having gorgeous skin, Rubinstein began experimenting with scents and perfecting a face cream that didn’t smell as bad as lanolin apparently does. She eventually moved to Melbourne where she raised the funds to open a salon and launch Valaze, a “skin food” made with “rare herbs from the Carpathian Mountains” by Dr. Lykuski, a “European skin specialist”—I guess Helena Rubinstein didn’t just invent skin creams. [Side note: Are you seeing a theme here? These women are all kick-ass marketers.]

Regardless of where the product came from, it flew off the shelves and soon Rubinstein was opening salons in Sydney (1907), London (1908), and Paris (1909). It was in London that she met her husband, American journalist Edward Titus. At the outbreak of World War I, she moved with her husband to New York, where she opened a salon in 1915. Because she was Jewish, she could not get retail space directly on Fifth Avenue and had to open around the corner on 49th Street. Nevertheless, her business continued to be an incredible success and, in a stunning moment of foresight, she sold the American business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for over $7 million dollars. After the stock market crash in 1929 and the arrival of the Great Depression, she bought it back for less than $1 million and continued to expand throughout the United States. Well played, Helena, well played.

Helena Rubinstein mixing potions in her Paris laboratory in 1939

Florence Nightingale Graham (aka Elizabeth Arden) (1878–1966)
Florence Nightingale Graham, founder of the cosmetics empire Elizabeth Arden, was born and grew up in Ontario, Canada, but in her late 20s decided to move and join her elder brother in New York City. She got a job working as a bookkeeper for the E.R. Squibb Pharmaceuticals Company and spent off hours learning about skin care in their laboratory. She then changed jobs and worked as a beauty “culturist” or a “treatment girl” for Eleanor Adair. In 1909, she formed a partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard, but their business dissolved less than a year after it started. However, Graham decided to keep the name Elizabeth (supposedly to save money on signage), adding the last name Arden in the process. She would use both names throughout her life.

In 1910, Elizabeth Arden opened her first “Red Door” salon on Fifth Avenue. In 1912, she went to France to learn new salon techniques and treatments and came back with a whole new collection of rouges and powders. In fact, Arden is one of the beauty pioneers responsible for making make-up respectable, as it had often been seen as something vulgar, used only by the lower classes, especially actresses and prostitutes. This development was certainly aided and abetted by the rising popularity of cinema, which required a subtler form of make-up than did the stage. Soon Arden began to expand her operations internationally and by 1929 had opened salons across the United States and Europe. In 1934, she opened the first “destination spa” in the United States, in the Belgrade Lakes area of Maine. [Side note: I spent the summer after high school there working as a housekeeper on a tiny island in Great Pond at what can only be described as a summer colony for WASPs. Good times.]

Florence Nightingale Graham/Elizabeth Arden, circa 1930

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Sarah Stage, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (1979)
  • Shomari Wills, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires (2018)
  • A’Lelia Perry Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (2001)
  • Tananarive Due, The Black Rose: The Dramatic Story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s First Black Female Millionaire (2000) (historical fiction)
  • Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (1998)
  • Lindy Woodhead, War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (2003)

Podcast episodes:
History Chicks: Lydia Pinkham
Bowery Boys: Madam C.J. Walker: Harlem’s Hair Care Millionaire
History Chicks: Madam C.J. Walker
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sarah Breedlove Walker & Sarah Rector: Who was America’s First Black Millionairess?
Bowery Boys: The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War
Soldiers and Spies in World War II
Adventurers and Explorers
Strange Bedfellows
A Mind at (House)Work

For the next post in this series, see Fashion Forward.

*For more on the question, see the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast above as well as the new book Black Fortunes, which tells the tale of six other millionaires who came before Walker, including Mary Ellen Pleasant and Annie Turnbo Malone.
**I want to note here that I really admire what Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C.J. Walker achieved, which is why I have included them in this post, but I do know that “good hair” is a controversial topic in the black community and so I apologize in advance if I have offended anyone by celebrating these female entrepreneurs.