Sunday, November 15, 2009

Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African-American Women, 1920-1975

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Most recent library book: Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African-American Women, 1920-1975 by Susannah Walker.
Great read! (Though, to be honest, I browsed, more than read the book...)

I was going to stay away from skin lightening ads - and I've come across LOTS of them - but among the photographs included in Style & Status were the ones immediately below, advertising skin lightening creams and salves as a way to have pride in one's race.... which is nothing if not counterintuitive.

The copy on the advertisement above begins, "Your sweetheart - your husband is not blind. If you have short, ugly hair he knows." Well, tell us how you REALLY feel! I can't deny that the photographed woman is a head turner, and appeals to vanity are certainly nothing new, but tact and finesse seem to have been acquired charms in the advertising industry. This 1928 ad from the Chicago Defender is so over the top to the modern reader, it's almost funny.

Madam C.J. Walker's empire extended beyond hair products; the advert above speaks of antiseptic soap, face powders, body oils - all in the service of a woman's beauty and desirability. The ad's copy reads: "Perhaps you envy the girl with irresistible beauty, whose skin is flawless and velvety, whose hair has a beautiful silky sheen, the girl who receives glances of undoubted admiration. You need not envy her." Followed, of course, by the claim that Madam C.J. Walker's products can make you as beautiful as you've ever dreamt of being.

It's all very "Bernice Bobs Her Hair".

Not only was Madam C.J. Walker inventing products for African-American women - she was also employing and teaching them! As seen in the flyer above, which reads: "In these times, when we are so greatly concerned about jobs, it is refreshing to know that here is one company where the color of one's skin is not a bar to employment." Refreshing indeed! And in the 1920s!

Lard, tallow, petroleum, and a spool of thread... MacGuyver could probably sail a ship with less. But what could YOU make of your hair with only these items? Probably a mess. I wouldn't even know where to begin! Black women in the 1920s had this to work with until Madam C.J. Walker. Even as an African American woman with natural hair who isn't fond of chemicals... I couldn't imagine slathering my head with lard.

The teeny weeny afro in this advert seemed at first anachronistic to me. Seems like something you'd see in the late 1960s to early 1970s, but this ad is from a 1929 issue of the Chicago Defender.

Poro College Representatives seemed the 1920s equivalent of what we know as Avon or Mary Kay Reps today. How progressive!

An African American hair show in the 1920s... It's no Bronner Brothers, but that hair shows even existed this early was a huge surprise to me!

No beauty school dropouts here.
I wonder if in the 1940s it was cheaper to have students do your hair, as it is now...

Interesting! These days, people want a sun-kissed beach tan. I know that in the 1920s, women generally valued porcelain complexions and marcelled hair, but Among African-American women, I imagined the beauty standards to be different. I guess not!

Skin lightening ads really rub me the wrong way. I know that they still exist, and are not limited to any one culture or era, but I wish we could all be over the idea that fairer skin is better skin, or straighter hair is better hair. Yes, straight hair and fair skin are beautiful, but just as beautiful are dark skin and curly or kinky hair.
/end rant

This pamphlet cover reminds me of the Tide Magazine cover I'd discovered in Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry last month. I thought Tide's 1947 cover bold and ground-breaking (which is was; Tide was a national advertising trade magazine running a story about African American consumers), but this pamphlet insert from the Chicago Defender from 1945 predates the Tide article by two years.

Makes Pete Campbell's fictional 1963 pitch on Mad Men not seem so far fetched or outrageous.

I've come across so many Nadinola ads during my research they don't even shock me any more. Last month, when I first began scouring old issues of Black publications, every happening upon a Nadinola ad was a new slap in the face... The idea that love could be influenced by complexion, that dark skin was an impediment to happiness is both antiquated (I hope!) and hurtful. But, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the ads were often blocked so beautifully, I was tempted to feature them. I may decide to in the future.

I absolutely LOVE this hair style. I've got to figure out how to achieve it. My hair is very Very VERY puffy and curly, so to tame it into this style may prove difficult. If only I could get my hands on some sensational Vapoil.

Again, Susannah Walker's book, Style & Status was a great read! I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the Black beauty industry and the experience of Black women in the 1920s to the 1970s.

This week, on b.vikki vintage, I'll begin the Black Brides & Weddings posts, and feature some great vintage ads from Pepsi, Kodak, and more.

Thanks for reading - and a very special thank you to the 20+ new followers I gained last week!

Don't forget to visit b.vikki vintage on Etsy!


  1. How awesome!! I have vivid memeories about Murrays !! My dad still uses it!!

  2. light, bright and attractive? oh lord. *flash forward 80 years to beyonce's skin being digitally lightened in l'oreal ads and on magazine covers, when she's already light*

    that being said, i love the long waves in the glossine ad. thats why im fighting so hard not to cut my pixie and grow it out.

  3. thanks for a great read & history lesson. Some really made me catch my breath, but went the times.

  4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the hair in the glossine and vapoil ad. One day I'm totally doing that! Do you have a flickr account so I could favorite?

    And I think we have a Murray's tin around here somewhere! ^-^

  5. The sad thing is that this whitening cream is selling, unfortunately it has gained a foothold in the island of Jamaica, it also is being sold to our brothers and sisters in India, SE Asia, and basically anywhere there are POC, including yes, China. Things change and yet they stay the same.

  6. Those posts in Chinese are really bad if you translate them with Google translate! You should delete them! It's spam.

  7. I love your blog. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Seriously, those Chinese posts are terrible.

    If you want to know what they say, just go here:|en|%E6%8C%89%E6%91%A9%E6%A3%92%E7%9A%84%E9%9B%BB%E5%8B%95%E6%8C%89%E6%91%A9%E6%A3%92%E7%9A%84%E9%A3%9B%E6%A9%9F%E6%9D%AF%E7%9A%84%E8%87%AA%E6%85%B0%E5%A5%97%E7%9A%84%E8%87%AA%E6%85%B0%E5%A5%97%E7%9A%84%E6%83%85%E8%B6%A3%E5%85%A7%E8%A1%A3%E7%9A%84%0A%E8%A7%92%E8%89%B2%E6%89%AE%E6%BC%94%E7%9A%84%E6%8C%89%E6%91%A9%E6%A3%92%E7%9A%84%E8%B7%B3%E8%9B%8B%E7%9A%84%E6%83%85%E8%B6%A3%E8%B7%B3%E8%9B%8B%E7%9A%84%0A%0AG%E9%BB%9E%E7%9A%84%E6%80%A7%E6%84%9F%E4%B8%81%E5%AD%97%E8%A4%B2%E7%9A%84%E5%90%8A%E5%B8%B6%E8%A5%AA%E7%9A%84%E4%B8%81%E5%AD%97%E8%A4%B2%E7%9A%84%E7%84%A1%E7%B7%9A%E8%B7%B3%E8%9B%8B%E7%9A%84%0A%0A%E8%A1%A3%E8%9D%B6%E7%9A%84%0A%E6%83%85%E8%B6%A3%E6%8C%89%E6%91%A9%E6%A3%92%E7%9A%84%0A%E6%BD%A4%E6%BB%91%E6%B6%B2%E7%9A%84SM%E7%9A%84%E5%85%A7%E8%A1%A3%E7%9A%84%E6%80%A7%E6%84%9F%E5%85%A7%E8%A1%A3%E7%9A%84%E8%87%AA%E6%85%B0%E5%99%A8%E7%9A%84%E5%85%85%E6%B0%A3%E5%A8%83%E5%A8%83%E7%9A%84AV%E7%9A%84%E6%83%85%E8%B6%A3%E7%9A%84%E6%83%85%E8%B6%A3%E7%94%A8%E5%93%81%E7%9A%84

    They're really unattractive.

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