The Origins of African American Beauty
Culture in St. Louis, 1900—1930
De Anna J. Reese
Our ideas of manhood and masculinity have traditionally involved power, physical strength, and the ability to provide economic security; similarly, our perceptions about womanhood and femininity have come to center around themes such as beauty. For black women, these notions took on new importance in the first decades of the twentieth century, when many relied on hairstyles and clothes to demonstrate their move out of the field and into the urban marketplace. Although unburdened by the distortions of modern-day commercials and music videos, black women of that time were not spared the mixed messages or trauma associated with a society at times unwilling and unable to accept the range and depth of their natural beauty. In fact, most found it increasingly difficult to gain acceptance in a world where anything “black” was considered far from ideal.
In the early twentieth century, the growing public presence of women and the social, political, and economic changes that accompanied their lives increased the value placed on women's physical appearance. This was especially the case for black women, many of whom bought and tested new products designed to enhance their beauty while increasing their chances for social mobility. The first major center of black beauty culture, St. Louis was home to the development of an industry that created two of the nation's most successful black women entrepreneurs. Helping launch the careers of both Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone, St. Louis offered hundreds of black women the opportunity to increase their