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The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Fascinating Women: Nannie Helen Burroughs


Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a woman ahead of her time. In a community split between the principles of Du Bois and the NAACP and Washington and Tuskeegee, as well as the ideological rifts between black club women, she believed that industrial education was compatible with classical education, and challenged Du Bois’s concept of the Talented Tenth by stating: “teachers, preachers, and ‘leaders’ cannot solve the problems of the race alone. The race needs an army of skilled workers, and the properly educated Negro woman is the most essential factor.”

Born in Orange, Virginia in 1883 to John and Jennie Burroughs, she was of an atypical family. She was the granddaughter of slaves, but her father attended college and was a preacher, and after John Burroughs’ premature death, her mother, a cook, moved to Washington, D.C. with Nannie and her sister (who died in childhood), in search of work for herself and better schools for her daughters. Nannie attended the Colored High School on M Street, a school notable for its now legendary alumni, where she graduated in 1896, with honors in business and domestic science. She then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she attended Eckstein-Norton University and laid the foundation for her future when she organized a women’s industrial club that offered evening classes in bookkeeping, sewing, cooking, and typing. She graduated in 1904 and became a member at the Theological Faculty at Louisville’s State University, but returned to Washington, D.C. the following year.

When Nannie returned to the city, despite earning high marks in a civil service exam, she was denied a position in the public school system. She was very disappointed by this setback, but it only strengthened her burgeoning commitment to the plight of poor and working-class black women, advocating the unionization of domestic workers because “the women voters will be keen to see that laws are passed that will give eight hours a day…to women in other industries, but they will oppose any movement that will, in the end, prevent them from keeping their cooks and house servants in the kitchen twelve or fifteen hours a day.” She became one of the most outspoken–and to many, radical–members of the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention and the National Association of Colored Women, the former organization the largest body of African American women in the nation. Burroughs received an honorary M.A. degree from Eckstein-Norton University in 1907, and her pivotal role in the aforementioned organizations allowed her to mobilize both to support her greatest achievement, the National Training School for Women and Girls.

Burroughs opened her school in 1909 with thirty-one students in a “dilapidated, eight-room farmhouse” purchased for $6,500 just outside D.C., in a community called Lincolnville, which had fewer than a dozen houses and no paved streets, water, or electricity. The money was donated almost entirely by blacks, and though white philanthropists were solicited for donations, at no point did the school’s existence depend upon white funding, which was quite rare for the period. The school was indelibly stamped with her aims for black women, and there she created a “creed of racial self-help through her program of the three Bs-the Bible, the bath, and the broom. The Bible, the bath, and the broom stood for a clean life, a clean body, and a clean house.” The school prepared its students for employment, with courses in domestic science and secretarial skills, but also in unconventional occupations such as shoe repair, barbering, and gardening. Burroughs also distilled a sense of pride for their heritage in her students, requiring each to pass a course in African-American history and culture to fulfill graduation requirements. By the time of Burroughs’ death in 1961, the National Training School had granted the equivalent of high school and community college degrees to over 2,000 black women from the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean, but her life and activism touched and inspired ten times the number of graduates throughout her lifespan.

Further Reading:
African American Lives by Henry Louis Gates & Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
Gendering the City: Women, Boundaries, and Visions of Urban Life by Kristine B. Miranne & Alma H. Young
African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920 by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn
How Women Saved the City by Daphne Spain
Uplifting the women and the race: the educational philosophies and social activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs by Karen Ann Johnson
Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood by Deanwood History Committee

Nannie Helen Burroughs Speaks

Fascinating Women: Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker
I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!

Contrary to public opinion, Madam C.J. Walker did not invent the hot comb or relaxers, and neither was she the only African-American beautician during the Gilded Age. What the former Sarah Breedlove was, however, was incredibly intelligent–a savvy entrepreneur, pioneering businesswoman, and shrewd marketer, she turned African-American beauty culture into a multimillion dollar empire never before seen. In the post-Reconstruction period, black women were alternately neglected by the vastly increasing companies catering to women’s haircare, cosmetics, and beauty, or sold toxic concoctions by greedy companies which promised “lighter skin” and “straight hair”, but ended up creating more problems for black women desperate to conform to the very narrow standards of beauty of the late 19th century.

Though working-class women, both black and white, lived in homes rarely fitted with modern plumbing or ventilation, and subscribed to old wives tales about hair-washing, this lack of care resulted in “rampant scalp disease: dandruff, lice, eczema, fungal infections, alopecia, and tetter, a particularly pesky form of psoriasis.” For black women, whose hair was characterized as “frizzy” or “kinky,” therefore “unattractive,” these diseases, which ultimately resulted in hair loss, were traumatic, and Sarah Breedlove was no stranger to this maddening cycle. Having been married and widowed by age twenty, and mother to a young daughter, A’Lelia, Sarah moved from Mississippi to St. Louis in the late 1880s, where her brothers made a living as barbers. There Sarah became a laundress, one of the few professions open to black women, where she worked six days a week washing, scrubbing, drying, pressing, and mending pounds and pounds of clothes for St. Louis’ elite.

“The work, all done by hand in wooden washtubs and iron pots of boiling water, was steamy, strenuous and laborious. Wet sheets and tableclothes doubled in weight. Lye soap irritated hands and arms. Heated flatirons were heavy, cumbersome and dangerous […] a broken dress button or a scorched shirttail meant a cut in pay, a reduction of a washerwoman’s weekly $4 to $12 wages.” (Bundles 46)

During this time, Sarah began to suffer from hair loss, presumably from the chemicals involved in washing, but most likely from the stress of being a single mother in a precarious financial situation. She turned to a variety of remedies, from home-made products to those purchased in stores, including the hair products manufactured by Annie Malone, an African-American beauty culturist and entrepreneur. Malone specialized in the different hair textures of black women’s hair, and worked to revolutionize hair care for African Americans, creating a variety of products, including the first patented hot comb. Malone’s line of hair care products, called Poro, a West African name meaning physical and spiritual growth, were sold by door-to-door saleswomen, and by the turn of the century, Sarah had become one of them.

After relocating to Denver, Colorado as a sales agent of Poro, Sarah–now married to newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker–struck out on her own as “Madam C.J. Walker,” creator of Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. In later years, Sarah would use her story to inspire prospective black entrepreneurs, pointing to Divine intervention as the source of her scalp conditioning and healing formula, and imbuing it with a sense of mysticism by claiming the ingredients came directly from Africa.

madam cj walker

The truth was rather more mundane, and dangerously untruthful in the eyes of the furious Annie Malone, but Madam Walker possessed a flair for marketing and business on a much wider scope than Malone even dreamed. In the first eighteen months of business, Madam Walker embarked upon an intensive tour of the South, selling her products door to door, demonstrating techniques to promote healthy hair and diet, and coming up with new and innovative sales and marketing techniques. However, the best form of promotion was Madam Walker’s own hair, which, as seen in her advertisements, showed her hair before her hair treatments (short and damaged) and after (healthy, lustrous, long). By 1907, her first full year on the road, she earned over $3600, nearly tripling her 1906 earnings, which, compared to a black woman’s average wages of $96 to $240 a year, was an astonishing feat.

Madam Walker’s business expanded to such a degree, she moved her base to Pittsburgh, PA, where she opened Lelia College to train Walker “hair culturists.” While Madam Walker continued to travel across the United States, keeping her hand directly in the operations of the business by more demonstrations, personal sales, and training beauticians under her business model, her daughter A’Lelia was her second-in-command, hitting areas she didn’t have time to attend. In 1910, after scouting for a better location for her headquarters, Walker Manufacturing Co. moved in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she built a factory, hair and manicure salon and another training school. Now comfortably well-off, Madam Walker began to train and teach black women how to open their own businesses, lecture at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions, and expand her influence as the image of what an African-American woman with a little ingenuity and talent could achieve (in a stroke of particular genius, Madam Walker expanded her business to black women in South America and the Caribbean, tapping into that definitely neglected market!).

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro

So wealthy had Madam Walker become, white newspapers of the period could not ignore her, particularly when she moved to New York and startled residents of Upper Manhattan when she opened her first salon in an all white street. The crowning jewel in her empire was her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. Designed and built by Vertner Tandy, the first registered African-American architect, between 1916 and 1918, the $250,000 home (christened Villa Lewaro, from a suggestion by famous tenor Enrico Caruso) garnered much press in both the black and white news of the time, with The New York Times devoting a nice sized column detailing the architecture and amenities:

“A three-story and basement affair with roof of red tile, is in the Italian Renaissance style…it stands in the centre of a four-and-a-quarter acre plot…and has thirty-four rooms. In the basement are a gymnasium, baths and showers, kitchen and pantry, servants’ dining room, power room for an organ, and storage vaults for valuables. The visitor enters a marble room, whence a marble stairway leads to the floor above. On the first floor are the library and conservatory, a living room, a Louis XV drawing room…the second floor contains bedrooms, bathrooms, showers, dressing rooms, sewing rooms, and two sleeping porches. On the third floor are servants’ quarters. [Madame Walker] employs eight servants, including a butler, sub-butler, chef, and maids of all work. In addition to these she has a social secretary and a nurse. On the third floor are also bathrooms, a billiard room, and a children’s nursery.”

By Madam Walker’s death in 1919, aged 51, she had become the wealthiest African-American woman in America and the first self-made female American millionaire. She also became a legendary figure in the progress and achievement of African-Americans, particularly African-American women, in a time where their contributions to society were ignored or marginalized. For more information on Madam Walker’s incredible life, the biography written by Madam C.J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter is an equally incredible resource!

Further Reading:
On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles
“Wealthiest Negro Woman’s Suburban Mansion: Estate at Irvington, Overlooking Hudson and Containing All the Attractions That a Big Fortune Commands.” New York Times Magazine. November 4, 1917.

Madam Walker Estate
Official Website of Madam C.J. Walker

The Edwardian Sportswoman


Edwardian ladies fencing match

In the first volume of The Sportswoman’s Library (1898), editor Frances Slaughter states:

“It is during the last ten years that women have come to be reckoned as a power in the land, in the matter of sport, and it is now a matter of course for the novelists of the day to make their leading women-characters of almost all classes, join in some one or more form of out-door recreation. Vivid pictures of the hunting-field, the banks of the salmon river, the croquet lawn and the golf links, show the love of the nineteenth century maid and matron for the healthy out-door exercise, which has given to the younger generation a physique that would have been regarded with wondering awe, not unmixed with disapproval, by their gentle and delicate great-grandmothers.”

The sight of panting, dirty, exhilarated, and flushed young women after a rousing game of field hockey or tennis, or after riding to hounds was the complete antithesis of proper womanhood. Though women played sports to varying degrees from the Middle ages on, by the 18th century, sports had become a distinctly masculine enclave. The tide began to change in the mid-Victorian era, with feminists both male and female, expressing the uplifting and educational qualities of recreational activities. It also wasn’t a coincidence that the rise of female higher education occurred almost simultaneously with the rise in women’s sports. The tenets of “Muscular Christianity,” wherein physical strength and health were linked with moral health (thereby equipping men with the tools for leadership and rule), found its place, albeit in feminine form, in the physical activities promoted at girls’ public schools and universities. The result gave women a more invigorating existence and challenged the notion of traditional femininity.

Women’s magazines and periodicals echoed this new development, and the leading weeklies of the day, such as The Lady or Queen, included detailed columns about the latest sports alongside articles about fashion, gossip, and the like, and magazines devoted entirely to ladies’ sports, such as The Ladies’ Field, found a large and enthusiastic audience. Authors such as L.T. Meade and Angela Brazil built their careers writing “modern schoolgirls’ stories” which focused on active and sporting girls at fictional girls’ public schools, much in the manner of the large canon of entertaining stories following the exploits of public school boys, which helped to further cement the acceptability of the sportswoman.

Further Reading:

Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English women, 1870-1914 by Kathleen E. McCrone
Ladies of the manor: Wives and Daughters in country-house society, 1830-1918 by Pamela Horn

Women and Sport
Victorian Fashion, Sports, and Women
Women in Sports (interesting images and figures from 1890s and early 1900s)

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