Boston’s Black Hairdressers: Beauty Culture in the 1920 Women’s Voter Registers

by Anna Boyles

Boston women’s voter registrations from 1920 reveal that a number of women migrated from southern states to make neighborhoods such as the South Conclude and Reduced Roxbury their residence. Wanting additional, a sample emerges. A lot of of these southern gals documented to voter registration clerks that they had been occupied as hairdressers. On top of that, their census information show that these southern-born hairdressers ended up Black or mixed-race individuals. What led to this focus of Black southern girls performing as hairdressers right after migrating to Boston?

From 1914 to 1920, about 30,000 to 50,000 Black Southerners migrated from southern states, lots of attracted to the industrial careers accessible in northern towns like Boston. This historical shift in the Black populace of the U.S. is recognised as the Excellent Migration. While some fled the South thanks to racial terror and Jim Crow guidelines, quite a few were enticed by industrial jobs offered in northern metropolitan areas. Black guys were able to protected these types of positions in the north, but Black women of all ages remained limited principally to employment in domestic services. Sad to say, domestic employees confronted very long hrs, very low wages, tiny handle over get the job done schedule, and no area for improvement. It is no surprise, consequently, that Black girls sought work elsewhere. In accordance to sociologist Robert L. Boyd, Black gals succeeded in careers in hairdressing and elegance culture in the course of the Terrific Migration for several causes.

Magnificence Society Course, circa 1920-1930, Handbook Teaching and Industrial Faculty at Bordentown, NJ

Initial, magnificence was a reasonably quick subject to enter education was obtainable in some general public educational institutions as very well as local attractiveness colleges.  In addition, women of all ages could run salons out of their own houses. Beauty jobs available far more overall flexibility, meaning that girls could harmony family members duties and a wage-earning position. Black females were specifically educated in the unique demands of Black hair care. This authorized them to contend efficiently against those people untrained in chopping, styling, and caring for Black hair. Work opportunities in the magnificence field delivered home for advancement. One particular could broaden from a dwelling shop to a salon to maybe a single day a splendor faculty or manufacturing organization for natural beauty products. This meant that some females in the elegance sector could climb the social and financial ladder. Some may possibly have been motivated to enter the magnificence area right after seeing the accomplishment of Madam C.J. Walker, Black entrepreneur and founder of the Madam C.J. Walker Producing Enterprise. Born in Louisiana to her formerly enslaved parents, Walker moved to St. Louis and formulated hair solutions and magnificence colleges for Black ladies.  She is normally credited as getting the 1st Black self-built millionaire.

St. Louis Palladium, 1904
St. Louis Palladium, 1904

A person new Boston voter who took gain of the prospects of hairdressing was Mary L. Johnson. Born in Virginia about 1880, Johnson married a fellow southern-born man, Dr. W. Alexander Johson, in 1896 in Boston. With each other, they started promoting Johnson’s Hair Food in 1900, which could be bought from brokers or purchased as a result of the mail. She marketed her goods across the region, like in Alabama, Virginia, Missouri, and Colorado. In addition, Boston inhabitants and people could purchase these hair and scalp products and solutions at Johnson’s Hair Retail outlet on Shawmut Avenue. Johnson would go on to open a beauty faculty, with two destinations listed in the 1920 Boston Sign up and Enterprise Directory: 800 Tremont Road and 561 Shawmut Avenue.

Official Souvenir Program, National Negro Business League, Boston, 1915
Formal Souvenir Application, National Negro Business League, Boston, 1915

It is unclear, then, why Boston town clerks recorded Mary L. Johnson’s profession as “housewife” when she registered to vote in 1920.

Excerpt from Ward 13 of General Register of Women Voters showing entry for Mary L. Johnson, 1920, Boston City Archives
Excerpt from Ward 13 of Basic Sign up of Ladies Voters demonstrating entry for Mary L. Johnson, 1920, Boston Metropolis Archives

The information recorded in the registers was impacted by what every single voter registration clerk requested women of all ages and how they selected to document their solutions. We have observed clerks typically deciding on to report a woman’s occupations as housewife when she, in truth, retains a job, like in the circumstance of Mary L. Johnson. In some occasions, we have even discovered clerks showing up to be corrected by gals registering to vote. In some entries, “housewife” had been recorded as the profession ahead of becoming struck out and a different task getting penned upcoming to it. You can explore much more operating ladies and southern girls in the transcribed data of Wards 1, 6, 8, and 13

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Anna Boyles is a dual-degree university student in Background and Archives Management at Simmons University.