In previous posts I’ve discussed the creation and marketing of face powder for African American women.  Among the pioneers in cosmetics for women of color was the brilliant business woman Madame C.J. Walker.

 “Sweet Georgia Brown” face powder wasn’t one of Madame Walker’s products, but it was obviously intended for sale to what was then often referred to as the “race” market.  Although in hindsight the term “race” in the context of marketing products may seem to be a derogatory one, in the early 20th century the African American press routinely used the term “the Race” to refer to African Americans as a whole, and used the terms “race man” or “race woman” to refer to African American individuals who showed pride and support for their people and culture. In other words, it was a different time.

Among the women who may have used products such as “Sweet Georgia Brown” face powder was entertainer Ethel Waters.  She may have even powdered her nose with it for the photo of her which graced the cover of the catalog for “New Race Records”.  Race records were 78 rpm phonograph records made by and for African Americans, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s.  Billboard magazine published “Race Records” charts between 1945 and 1949, finally dropping the term (at the suggestion of journalist Jerry Wexler) in June 1949 and replacing it with “Rythm & Blues Records”.

Ethel Waters was born the child of a teen-aged rape victim on Halloween 1896. Young Ethel didn’t have any adult supervision to speak of, yet she managed to look after herself.  She began, as had many of her contemporaries, performing at church functions.  By the time she was a teenager she was renowned locally for her “hip shimmy shake”.

The shimmy was first introduced to Americans in 1883 at the Colombian Exposition Chicago World’s Fair by Farida Mazar Spyropoulous, aka “Little Egypt” (she was actually Syrian).  Farida mesmerized audiences with the dance she referred to as the Hoochee-Coochee, or the shimmy and shake.  Americans had not yet become familiar with the term belly dance, an entertainment which had first been seen by the French during Napoleon’s incursions into Egypt — the French called the dance danse du ventre (dance of the belly).

When people refer to hoochee-coochee (it’s spelled about six different ways) today they generally mean an erotic, highly suggestive dance, which isn’t quite the same as the dance that Little Egypt was performing in 1883.

Even during the Roaring Twenties the Shimmy raised eyebrows. But when Ethel Waters and Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker “shook the shimmy” in New York cabaret floorshows, it soon became a craze that swept the nation!

Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker was often billed as “The Human Boa Constrictor”.  I would have thought that “The Human Cobra” would have been more apt.

In any case, critics of the day were hard pressed to find the right words to describe the movements that Earl was making on stage.  I guess it wasn’t polite to discuss the shimmy in print.

In the 1933 pre-code film “Hoop-La”, Clara Bow portrays a hula/hootchee dancer at a carnival. Now THAT is a hootchee costume!

A few decades after Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker writhed his way across a stage, Elvis Presley’s pelvis would get him into a bit of trouble with the critics, and prompt a letter from a Catholic diocese to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI!

After a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, an urgent message on the letterhead of the local Catholic diocese’s newspaper was sent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It warned that “Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. … [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teen-aged youth… After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang into Presley’s room at the auditorium. … Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were the two high school girls … whose abdomen and thigh had Presley’s autograph.”

Before “Sweet Georgia Brown” became a line of cosmetics, it was a snappy tune written in 1925 by Ben Bernie & Maceo Pinkard (music) and Kenneth Casey (lyrics). 


 I had hoped that Elvis and Ethel had more than swiveling hips in common so I looked for a performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” by The King. No such luck. But I did find an interesting recording from the early 1960s. 


On May 24, 1962 The Beatles recorded the instrumental track (with backing vocals) on a version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” for musician Tony Sheridan. Sheridan had met The Beatles in Hamburg, Germany at a club owned by Bruno Koschmieder.  Sheridan liked The Beatles, and the feeling was mutual;  in particular on the part of George Harrison who never missed an opportunity to jam with Tony.

Sadly, Sweet Georgia Brown face powder no longer exists; however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Sweet Georgia Brown hair pomade is once again available!   There are three different varieties, so one of them is bound to be perfect for your man’s classic pompadour.




There were many companies, like Hi-Hat, that specialized in manufacturing face powder, hair treatments, and other cosmetics for African American women. 

Madam C.J. Walker

The most important and successful African American cosmetics entrepreneur was Sarah Breedlove (Madam C.J. Walker) – her story is inspiring. 

Sarah was born (one of six children) in Delta, Louisiana on December 23, 1867. Because she’d lost both of her parents by the time she was seven years old, she moved in with her older sister, Louvenia, and brother-in-law, Willie Powell.  Powell was abusive to her, so she married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old to escape. Three years later her daughter, Lelia McWilliams was born. When Sarah was 20, her husband died. Shortly afterward she moved to St. Louis where three of her brothers were barbers.  She may have learned some hair care tips from her brothers, but it would be her own drive and initiative that would enable her to create the company that would make her famous, and rich. 

On August 11, 1894 Sarah married a man named John Davis. That marriage ended around 1903. In January 1906 she married a newspaper sales agent, Charles Joseph Walker. They divorced in 1912.  

Walker would later say: “When we began to make $10 a day, [my ex-husband] thought that was enough, thought I ought to be satisfied.”  “But I was convinced that my hair preparation would fill a long-felt want. And when we found it impossible to agree, due to his narrowness of vision, I embarked on business for myself.”  Clearly Walker was a woman who knew what she wanted, and was unafraid of hard work. 

Her business paradigm was innovative and in the years since it has been used by other companies such as the California Perfume Company (their name was later changed to AVON).  Madam Walker knew marketing strategies of the past had focused mostly on advertising; she also knew that the majority of black women at the time were unable to read. Thus, she began a uniquely successful campaign of face to face network marketing. But what made Walker a success was not just the fact that she knew and understood her market; she was, after all, her own best customer. Walker was able to get the market on her side by using it as manpower. 

In May 1918 she moved to her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, Villa Lewaro, which had been designed by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York State and a founding member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.  

One of her neighbors was industrialist John D. Rockefeller and, it may come as no surprise that most of her stuffy, white, upper-crust neighbors had a less than welcoming attitude toward her.  “One of the race,” wrote one newspaper, “is invading the domains of New York’s aristocracy.” The New York Times even wrote, “No woman of her race could own such a place. Does she really intend to live there?”  

Madam C.J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro on Sunday, May 25, 1919 from complications of hypertension. She was only 51. At her death she was considered to be the wealthiest African-American woman in America and known to be the first Africa-American millionaire. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, became the president of the C.J Walker Manufacturing Company.  

I’ve been told that Madam Walker’s business model is still studied today in business schools.  I don’t know if that is true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be.   

Apart from suggesting to me the story of Madam C.J. Walker, the Hi-Hat face powder box calls to mind images of places like the famous Cotton Club, and people like the incomparable Cab Calloway. By the early 1930s Calloway’s band was the “co-house” band with Duke Ellington.  


Calloway, who decided to pursue music rather than law as a career, was so hep that in 1944 The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive was published.  It was an update of an earlier book in which Calloway set about translating jive for fans who might not know, for example, that “kicking the gong around” was a reference to smoking opium.  

Hey, I knew that – didn’t you?  

Calloway was also a terrific scat singer.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term it is, according to Wikipedia: “… vocal improvisation with random vocals and nonsense syllables or without words at all. Scat singing gives singers the ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms, to create the equivalent of an instrumental solo using their voice.” 

Calloway wasn’t only a first class scat sinner – he’s the father of the “moon walk”.  That’s right, if you thought that Michael Jackson invented “moon walking” – wrong.  Check out this video of Cab and Betty Boop. You’ll see the genesis of the moon walk, and hear Cab scat. 

I need a time machine. Can someone get one for me?  Right now I feel like putting on my best gown and heading over to the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1930s.  I’ll sip a few cocktails at a front table.  And maybe I’ll get lucky and Cab and his band will be there, or even Billie Holiday or Ethel Waters.  

To finish off the evening I’ll grab a taxi to Chinatown – maybe kick a gong around.