U.S. History of Cosmetology
Ever wonder why hair stylists struggle to do textured hair?
This story navigates a little over 100 years of U.S. Cosmetology History and is a deeper look at America's struggle with textured hair. This also reveals how racism & patriarchy led to U.S. beauty regulations being created by men in power as a tool to limit women and people of color from prospering.
During the second industrial revolution, White and Black Americans experienced prosperity building businesses in the beauty industry. However, the insidious erasure of texturized hair began.
A.B. Moler founded the first American Barbering School in 1887. Black barbers were excluded from attending the barbering school. Yet, they were earning higher wages than most white barbers because of the "first-class" Jim Crow barber shop model. Upper class, White Americans, enjoyed being served by Black barbers, dressed in white uniforms in "exclusive settings." Mirroring Southern barbershops from periods of antebellum slavery, "first class" shops usually only served White customers.
By 1890, barbering labor groups began organizing in Minnesota after realizing Black barbers working in "first-class" shops were earning more money. Black barbers were left out of conversations for the hair laws that journeymen barber unions were getting passed. In 1884, union organizing led to some Black barbers being arrested for working on Sundays in Minnesota. In 1897, America's first piece of "hair legislation," a barbering law, was drafted and passed in Minnesota. Union regulations and licensure that followed meant higher expenses for barbers. Many Black barbers had to relocate to more affordable areas and others were put out of business.
With women still getting their hair done at home, a Canadian American business woman saw opportunity. Martha Matilda Harper invented the retail franchise business system, still widely used across industries today. In 1893, Martha became the first American business person to franchise hair salons. Over time, she would open 500 beauty salons which included her beauty training model. Beauty salons would enjoy the opportunity to participate in free trade, with no regulations for a while.
By 1900, barbering unions, schools, and hair salons continued to exclude Black patrons. Detrimental trends began. Textured hair was out, and sleeker euro-centric hair officially became the "standard."
While sleek hair was a seemingly harmless trend, it would set in motion years of pain for a countless number of people with textured hair. Americans learned how to hate naturally curly hair.
During a pivotal moment of exponential growth and innovation in U.S. history, beauty legislation was formed by White men in labor unions. Most of them held overtly racist attitudes about textured hair being "unkempt."
American attitudes about textured hair being less acceptable permeated every level of the U.S. beauty industry.
In 1908, Madame C.J. Walker started the first Black beauty school. With pressure for Black women to fit societal standards of having "good hair," these schools taught the art of growing, stretching, and straightening textured hair. Her beauty school also trained Black women on cosmetic sales and customer service skills.
The next year, in 1909, the first hair relaxer was created by Garrett A. Morgan. That same year the hot comb was introduced to America. The hot comb became a key tool used in Madame C.J. Walkers salons and beauty schools.
In 1916, the first Black American was permitted to graduate from A.B. Molers Barbering & Beauty School. Her name was Marjorie Joyner.
When Marjorie graduated, barber shop, beauty school, and hair salon systems, standards, and laws were already in full swing.
Euro-centric beauty standards became cemented into laws and begin forming solid roots in cosmetology education.
After being the first Black graduate of a White U.S. beauty school, Marjorie Joyner paid to train under Madame C.J. Walker. This duo partnered to start beauty businesses and also launched beauty schools in different areas until Madame C.J. Walker passed away in 1919.
In 1918, Annie Malone (a scientist, philanthropist and one of the first African American female millionaires) founded Poro College, another Black owned cosmetology school.
With Hollywood a little over 10 years old, the 1920s brought the trend of sleek finger waves, reinforcing that textured hair was still frowned upon. "Hollywood Glam" became the newest American beauty standard. By the roaring 30s, this hair trend was still in motion and beauty salon businesses had grown massively.
When hair salons become more popular than union barbershops, women stopped frequenting the barbershops that were open to them.
So, white male barbers grew angry again...
With no licensing or trade restrictions, Black and White women were kicking ass in the U.S. beauty business game. Martha Matilda Harper and Madame C.J. Walker's methods, salons, and beauty schools were still thriving.
With no trade restrictions, black and white women were kicking ass in the U.S. beauty business game with Martha Matilda Harper and Madame C.J. Walker's methods, salons, and beauty schools still thriving.
Frustrated that women were "cutting hair without barbering licenses," White journeymen barbers brought their grievances against women to their State Boards of Barbering across America.
To lock their fierce competitors out the market, barbering labor groups (a few now integrated) petitioned states to force women to obtain barbering licensure.
By 1933, America experienced a wave of new legislation aimed at licensing women in cosmetology. While barbers fought to make women's hair cutting an extension of barbering, women fought back and pushed for a separate cosmetology profession.
These new regulations went from being about unionizing for wages and sanitization to also controlling education and locking competitors out the market. This produced systemic racism by dictating which hair styling methods would be taught in cosmetology schools for years to come. These methods consisted of removing texture and curls in order to achieve sleeker results.
While White Americans reflect on the 1930s as a nostalgic period of "Hollywood Glamour," it also solidified normalizing the erasure of textured hair for Black people. This period of Cosmetology Law making would also generate new barriers of entry that prevented American women from easily becoming business owners of beauty salons and beauty schools.
Textured hair would not become "trendy" in the U.S. until the 1970s when wearing an afro became a sign of political protest.
By the 1980s, people embraced wearing "big hair." However, hair relaxers were still popular as Black women's "big curly hair" was less accepted in the workplace. During this period America saw lawsuits, brought by Black cosmetology associations, against State Boards of Cosmetology (like in California) for failing to be diverse and inclusive.
By 1990, American attitudes on textured hair regressed to the early 1900s. DIY home hair relaxer kits were flying off the shelves. Without access to textured hair training materials, beauty professionals struggled to care for their clients textured hair and relied on relaxers.
By the 2000s, American women no longer dominated the cosmetology business market. 85% of beauty service workers were women and minority groups, but 65% of beauty service businesses were owned by men. Today most U.S. Beauty Schools are owned and operated by men or run by franchise corporations.
In 2020, textured hair beauties around the world are reclaiming this narrative, embracing our curls, launching businesses and saying, "Our hair matters. Textured hair matters!"
*Disclaimer: We do not advocate for total deregulation of cosmetology. We believe public health and safety are important. However, history reveals that current U.S. beauty regulations were created and imposed by men in power to limit and exclude both women and people of color over the last 100 years. Today, the beauty industry is OVER regulated. We think cosmetology bills in all states should be revised so that education will be more inclusive, and licensing becomes less burdensome.