African Americans can trace their hair roots to the countries of West and West Central Africa including Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria. Among the societies of the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba, hair was integrated into the fabric of the culture. It conveyed multiple meanings and held spiritual powers.
The hair of African people has a variety of textures from kinky curls of the Mandingos to loosely curled of the Ashanti. Each clan or tribe had its own style, indicating geographic origins. Hair was a physical way to convey messages such as marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and communal rank. It was believed that hair acted as a means of communicating with gods and spirits that passed through the hair to a person’s soul. Hair was also viewed as containing the person’s spirit and could be powerful enough to be used to cast spells, offer protection, add potency to medicine, or summon a mate. Leaders of a community, both men and women, wore the most ornate styles. Typically, only royalty or someone of high rank within the society would wear hats or headpieces.
Collection of the AAMI – Gift of Jerry Weiner
Hair played an important role in the institution of slavery in the United States. Its removal was used by European captors to signal loss of freedom and individuality. Variation in its appearance was used by masters to create division among enslaved communities.
Beginning in the 1400s, European slave traders moved Africans from West Africa to the New Worlds. Slave traders shaved the heads of their captives to humiliate and demoralize. To shave a head can be interpreted as taking someone’s identity, so this was considered an unspeakable crime. Individual people of various cultures and communities entered the new world as anonymous goods.
Masters often divided the enslaved according to hair type and skin color. Those with lighter skin and straighter hair often worked in the plantation houses. Those with darker skin and coarser hair worked in the fields. Working in the master’s home had advantages: access to better clothing and food, education, and sometimes the promise of freedom upon the master’s death. Often these workers were the offspring of the master or his son(s). Those that worked in the fields faced malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions which left many with scalp diseases such as lice and ringworm. Scarves and kerchiefs were worn not just for sun protection but to cover the baldness and breakage suffered from these ailments.
Steropticon card depicting a Mississippi plantation
Collection of the AAMI – Anonymous Gift
The haircare industry of the early 1700s was dominated by African American men who prospered by catering to white clients. Stereotypes perpetrated by Southern Confederates damaged the industry, opening the door for black women to enter the field.
In the early 18th century, there were an estimated 50,000 free blacks living in the American North. African American barbers invested in state-of-the-art services offering spa and beauty treatments, baths, hairdressing, and barbering. These men developed wealth and used it to invest in property and businesses, as well as promoting and giving back to their local black community.
Starting in 1820, racial hostility toward black men increased. Stereotypes of black men as violent and sexually aggressive were used to justify enslavement. It became forbidden for black men to style white women’s hair. Black women were now increasingly able to enter the job market as professional hairstylists. New Orleans was the center of the hair care industry during this period. Some enslaved women were trained as hairdressers and hired out to style the hair of wealthy white women. Other African American women, both free and enslaved, set up cottage industries to style hair and sell homemade hair products.
Four Men in a Barbershop, circa 1880-1900
Collection of the AAMI – Gift of Steven Robinson
A tignon was a required headwrap worn by free and enslaved Creole women of African ancestry in Louisiana in the late 1700s.
Louisiana became a Spanish colony in 1763. Spanish slave codes allowed slaves to purchase their freedom. However, there was a concern that the increasing number of freed blacks was vying too forcibly for social status with whites. Spanish officials began passing laws to restrict the mobility of free blacks in society.
Women of color had been adorning their hair with beads and ribbons, competing with white women in fashion and status. The Tignon law, passed in 1786, required women of color to cover their hair with a “tignon” or kerchief in public as a symbol of enslaved status, whether they were or not. The women followed the law but turned the plain headwraps into fashionable headpieces adorned as elaborately as they had done their hair.
By 1803, Louisiana became property of the United States and the law was no longer enforced. Creole women continued to wear the headwrap throughout the 19th Century.
Portrait of Betsy by Francois Fleischbein (1801/1803-1868), oil on canvas, c. 1837.
The Historic New Orleans Collection 1985.212
Courtesy of Wiki Commons
After the Civil War, African American women began making hair and beauty products and dressing hair out of their homes. By the early 1900s, the African American beauty industry was growing and more opportunities were available for women to achieve economic independence.
There were very few employment options available to African American women in late 1800s. Women worked as domestics, laundresses, or on family farms. The black beauty industry began growing as women sold homemade hair products and dressed hair in their homes.
By 1900, a black middle class with extra funds for consumer goods had developed in the American North. Companies that manufactured and advertised beauty products to African Americans were mostly white owned and knew little about black hair. The majority of product advertisements were for skin lighteners and hair straighteners.
The African American beauty industry grew in the 1910s and 1920s in the urban centers of the North where door to door sales and access to retail establishments was easier. Few cosmetology schools were established at this time so most beauticians were untrained or apprenticed in salons. Regional migration in the South led to the establishment of African American commercial districts that fostered small businesses.
Mrs. Mary Wright is wearing a hairstyle that was popular in the early 1900s. This style called for an abundance of long straight hair that could be piled high on the head.
Portrait of the Wright family – Abe, Mary, Clive, and Leroy
Collection of the AAMI – Gift of Mary Graves
The New Negro
By the 1920s, skin color and hair texture remained a symbol of social and economic status in the African American community. Black leaders promoted African American women of light skin and straight hair as an ideal symbol of the black race.
For most of the 1800s, middle class African American intellectuals championed natural hair and beauty. By the mid- 1920s, straight hair was preferred to designate middle class status. The black middle and upper class of the North were largely the descendants of free blacks. They typically had lighter skin and straighter hair, due to both black and white ancestors. They maintained social and professional circles with those of similar features and distanced themselves from the newly freed in order to maintain their status.
The black leaders and intellectuals of the early 1900s, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, were part of the “New Negro” movement, which set to redefine the image of the black race. Stereotypes had persisted in mainstream society where the actions and appearance of one black person was seen as a reflection of all.
Author John H. Adams, Jr. reproduced images of seven ideal New Negro women so that other women might pattern themselves after the prototype. This is one of the images. The caption reads: “An admirer of Fine Art, a performer on the violin and the piano, a sweet singer, a writer – mostly given to essays, a lover of good books, and a home making girl, is Gussie.”
Adams, John, H., Jr. “A Study of the features of the New Negro Woman”, 1904
The onset of the Depression in 1929 created a decline in the production and sale of hair products. However, cosmetology schools boomed as states began regulating hairdressing.
Instructors and students were required to complete a course of study in cosmetology, take examinations, and be licensed by state boards. The beautician profession appealed to many women. Beauty school was cheaper and quicker to complete than training for professions like teaching or nursing. Even college educated black women, who often faced a lack of jobs due to race, turned to the beauty profession. By 1940, all 50 states regulated cosmetology.
Beauty schools and salons remained segregated through the 1950s. This was especially true in the South due to Jim Crow laws. Segregation actually served to protect cosmetology jobs for African American women. African American representation on state cosmetology boards provided further aid. They resisted voting to raise licensing fees and increase training hours that would have kept disadvantaged women from entering the industry. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s put an end to Jim Crow laws in the South. This opened up to new employment opportunities for African American women that had been out of reach only a decade earlier. This had a direct effect on the beauty industry as enrollment in schools declined.
Students at the Crescent School of Beauty Culture in Des Moines, IA, circa 1950s
Collection of the AAMI – Gift of Julie James
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought the end legal of segregation and gave rise to the Black Power Movement. Though not nationally organized, the movement had a large following, and was most popular on college campuses. Calling oneself black and proud became a political statement of one’s consciousness, color, and culture. Hair and fashion, including cornrows, braids, and west African gele headwraps, became the outward expression of Afrocentric-based black pride. The most popular hairstyle was the Afro.
This era divided the African American community. Older generations who fought for integration with peaceful protest disapproved of the extreme style of the Afro and the militancy and political stance of the Black Power movement. For white people, Afros inspired fear. Because schools and most neighborhoods were still segregated, most white people were not exposed to the changing images of blacks in pop culture.
The Black Power movement began its decline by the mid-1970s. Those that embraced the movement were now in the job market and felt the need to return to “professional” straightened hairstyles. Black beauty was becoming more accepted by the mainstream media culture and the once powerful symbol of the Afro dwindled to become just another hairstyle.
Collection of the AAMI – Courtesy of Dr. Lyell Henry
Hip Hop Culture
Hip hop rose as a form of expression by urban Black and Latino youth in the mid-1970s in the Bronx, New York. It evolved into a lifestyle that fused music, hair, and fashion to the messages of urban life.
Based in the political protests of black nationalism of the early 1970s and the impoverished areas of urban America, hip hop music had become a mainstream genre by 1979. Hip hop gave young African Americans a voice to let their issues be heard and gave some a chance for financial gain. Women artists have been at the forefront of the hip hop movement since its inception, though they often struggled to get mainstream attention.
Hair played an important role in this culture with styles ranging from the early-1980s Jheri curl to the early-1990s Hi-Top or Philly Fade, popular with men. Women rappers’ styles affirmed black female working-class culture. Women started using hair coloring, mousse, and gel hair products to create large hair and new distinctive hairstyles such as asymmetrical “wedges” or “stacks,” and finger waves. The influence of black nationalism was reflected in hairstyles such as braids and dreadlocks.
Actor and hip-hop artist Ice Cube wearing a Jheri curl hairstyle, c. 1987
African American Museum of Iowa