Skip to main content
History of Style
Beauty Products

Cosmetics, hair ointments, and folk medicines are significant traditional home enterprises within African American culture. From shea butter and perfumed oils to processing creams for the skin and recipes for “hair grease,” African Americans have had to invent their own solutions to everything from “ashy skin” to hair treatments.

Some of these solutions and techniques date back to the earliest experiences of Africans in the United States. Africans working as captive labor on American plantations developed strategies for cosmetic care and for wresting out a distinctive and African-rooted expressive culture of body arts from the limited materials and technologies available. Following emancipation, the African American beauty industry niche became a path for many to economic independence.

Annie Turnbo Malone (1869–1957) is widely recognized for her pioneering contributions to black hair care, including building PORO Hair and Toilet Preparations. Madame C. J. Walker (1867–1919) worked for Malone and eventually established her own thriving hair care corporation.

The tradition of homemade beauty products and beauty schools continues in the twenty-first century. With the help of the internet and social media, many entrepreneurs are creating new products that address specific beauty concerns of fellow African Americans.


Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.

.