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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.

[Feb. 1997]

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