Self-Made Beauty Millionaire
We are also proud to enrich the array of characters in Furnace with Annie Turnbo Malone — another critically underestimated historical figure of that time.
In 2020, Netflix released a four-part mini-series called “Self Made,” covering the story of Sarah Breedlove (known as Madam C. J. Walker) and giving her all of the credit for pioneering and succeeding in the African American beauty and cosmetic business instead of Annie Malone. Fortunately, many historians believe Malone deserves more credit for her devotion to African Americans.
During the late 19th century, African American women used bacon grease, heavy oils, and butter to straighten hair, all of which were very damaging and caused severe hair loss. Malone, always being interested in hair and chemistry, created a product that didn’t damage the hair or scalp and called it Wonderful Hair Grower.
In 1906, Malone trademarked her company’s name, “Poro,” which was either a reference to a West African organization devoted to disciplining and enhancing the body—or a combination of the last name from her first marriage, “Pope,” and her sister’s name she tested all of her products with, “Roberts.”
As a black woman, Turnbo was denied access to regular distribution channels. To sell her products, Annie and her assistants went door-to-door, giving demonstrations. Everywhere she went, she hired and trained women to serve as local sales agents, creating a nationwide distribution system.
One of her recruits was Madame C.J. Walker, a former washerwoman who eventually founded her own company and sold her own “Wonderful Hair Straightener,” which Malone called a fraudulent imitation.
Malone’s empire thrived through the World Wars, the Depression, her rivalry with Madam Walker, but could not withstand her second divorce, Malone’s back taxes, and a lawsuit from a disgruntled former employee. By 1943, Malone owed the government $100,000, and in 1951, the government and creditors seized her business.