At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries in the U.S., wage work for women blossomed as the Civil War ended, the culture of professionalism grew and new industries were forged. The country’s economic scale started to shift from small agriculture and sales towards big business, banking and major retail. As the country headed into World War I, women were able to leave their jobs as secretaries and waitresses, at least for the moment, and move into roles that until then were traditionally filled by men—machinists, bus drivers and accountants. It was a time of opportunity and growth never before seen in the country, and one that would allow Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden to forge their paths as titans of industry. While women launched and ran their own companies, Rubinstein and Arden, due to a mix of their marketing genius and business savvy, became the faces of their brands in a spectacular manner that eluded others, fascinating the public in the process.
In the first years of the new century, a number of other female entrepreneurs made their mark on the business world. Maggie Lena Walker focused her energies on the advancement of African American women in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. She chartered and served as the president of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank—she was the first female president of any bank in the nation—which merged with other financial institutions into the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Inspired by the Independent Order of St. Luke, a social organization that emerged in the years following the Civil War to provide medical and insurance services to African Americans, Walker worked to empower the black community to become self-sufficient, opening savings accounts for workers of all income levels and approving loans for aspiring African American homeowners.
Growing wealth in America and trends towards urbanization brought people closer to salable goods, both financially and geographically, creating a wealth of opportunities for business. It was still unusual for women to start and manage major companies, but these national and economic changes made it more possible than in the past. As America grew more distant from the Victorian Era, new companies focusing on women’s luxury products sprang up across the country.
The American department store, the fixture for mass distribution of goods, was born at this time. In San Francisco, Mary Ann Magnin opened the enormously successful I. Magnin (named after her husband Isaac, though he had little to do with the business) in 1877. Thirty years later, Carrie Marcus Neiman opened the first Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Texas, with her brother and husband. (Her two business partners were far more involved in the running of the corporation than Isaac Magnin was at I. Magnin.) Together, they sought to persuade wealthy women to buy well-made, ready-to-wear apparel, rather than the custom-made goods to which they were accustomed, and Neiman found a built-in audience in oil-rich Dallas. In Hartford, Connecticut, Beatrice Fox Auerbach took over the presidency of G. Fox & Co., the largest department store retailer in New England.
Immigrant and minority communities also saw a boom in invention and entrepreneurship. The Belarusian Ida Rosenthal invented the Maidenform brassiere and incorporated Maidenform in 1922, and the Lithuanian Lena Bryant (née Himmelstein) literally made a name for herself when a bank teller misspelled her first name on an application for a loan to create a clothing line focused on maternity wear: Lane Bryant.
In Rochester, New York, the Canadian Martha Matilda Harper opened the first of what would become over 500 salons—in fact, hers is considered as the precursor of the modern-day hair salon, and she is credited as the inventor of the reclining shampooing chair. She also manufactured and sold several lines of hair care products, using her own nearly six-foot-long tresses as the centerpiece of her advertising.
Annie Turnbo Malone, an Illinois native born in 1869, was fascinated with chemistry as a child and as an adult released a line of hair care products aimed at African American women, focusing on products that were far easier on the hair and scalp than most others at the time. Especially popular was her “Wonderful Hair Grower.” In the first decade of the new century, she moved to St. Louis and sold her goods door-to-door as well as at a small store. Convinced to change the name of her line to Poro (a West African word meaning “growth”) by a sales agent, she and her husband later opened Poro College, a beauty school that served the African American community in St. Louis.
The sales agent who convinced Turnbo to rename her company was Sarah Breedlove. Later known as Madame C.J. Walker, she was an entrepreneur and philanthropist, often called the first female self-made millionaire in America. As a young adult she experienced scalp irritation and hair loss because of the harsh chemicals then used in care products. Growing up the sister of barbers and later a part of the Turnbo company, Walker started her own product line and quickly became Turnbo’s greatest industry competitor. During the height of her career, Walker employed many thousands of African American women and made an effort to teach them how to budget and become financially independent. Though Walker’s company closed in 1981, Sundial and Sephora released a product line earlier this year bearing Walker’s name, inspired by her mission of healthy care for many different hair types.
When the Great Depression struck at the end of 1929, this specific period of American ingenuity slowed greatly, and the number of new woman-run corporations fell. For the 50 years prior, however, women made history in the factories, offices and boardrooms of America, paving the way for the working women of today.