“Now is the time to plan your future by learning a depression-proof business”
-Slogan of Apex Beauty Products Company
Madame Sara Spencer Washington was born in 1889 in Berkley, Virginia. She attended Norfolk Mission College and later attended Colombia and Northwestern College where she studied advanced chemistry. She began her career as a dress maker, but after moving to Atlantic City with her ill mother she opened her first hairdressing business in 1913.
Her business flourished as she worked in the shop during the day and went door-to-door in the evenings selling the beauty products she had developed with her in-depth knowledge of chemistry. She eventually obtained patents for her hair pressing oils and scalp creams that where advancements upon existing methods of hair straightening.
In 1919 Washington founded Apex News and Hair Company. The original business was multi-faceted: It was the factory where the products she had developed where manufactured, it was also a beauty school that provided young black women with a sustainable source of income, and it was an independently run monthly magazine for beauticians that featured her products. Her business quickly expanded and by the 1930s her empire included Apex Beauty Products Company, Apex Publishing Company, Apex Laboritories, Apex Drug Company, and Apex Beauty College. Her laboratory manufactured over 75 products from raw materials and employed over 215 women and men in the Atlantic City area. Her beauty colleges had branches all across the U.S. in: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Richmond, Virgina; Baltimore, and Newark, New Jersey. There was even a branch of her beauty college in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her beauty colleges graduated about 4,000 students each year and according to a 1946 newspaper report, more than 45,000 agents were selling her products around the world. Her businesses provided thousands of black women with a cosmetology education that allowed them to open their own salons, and work independently as sales agents for her products.
Washington had founded a beauty empire by the mid-1930’s in which beauty technicians around the world learned to administer her system, using her products, while independent sales agents went door-to-door selling her products. The Apex Beauty Products Company was the largest black-owned business in New Jersey and was one of the nation’s largest black-owned manufacturing companies in the 1930’s. She was one of the first female African American millionaires and was honored at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as one of the “Most Distinguished Businesswomen” in the country.
Madame Washington was also very active in her local community. She was an active member on the Atlantic City Board of Trade for many years. She was also elected to the Atlantic County Republican Committee in 1938 and served as a New Jersey delegate at the 1940 Republican National Convention. Her many titles also included being the president of the Northside Business and Professional Women’s Club in Atlantic City, chair of the Industrial Department of the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and during WWII she filed the position of secretary and treasurer of the New Jersey Welfare Commission on the Conditions of Urban Colored Populations.
Her commitment to her community extended well past political involvement into steadfast philanthropic endeavors. She founded a nursing home for the elderly in Atlantic City called Apex Rest. After enduring discrimination at a local gold course, she founded her own golf course: The Apex Golf and Country Club for patrons of all races. She sponsored the first black float in the Atlantic City Easter Parade in 1947, and was well known in the community for distributing truckloads of coal to poor families in the community during harsh winter months. She also supported many charities including the Betty Bacharach Home for Children in Longport, New Jersey and the Ellen P. Hunter home for Girls in Atlantic City (which was named after her mother). She also donated 20 acres of her own farm in Egg Harbor, New Jersey as a campsite for black youth in allegiance with the National Youth Administration (which was one of the New Deal programs).
By the time of her death in 1953 her business was worth more than a million dollars, it directly employed around 500 people, as well as the 45,000 independent Apex agents. Her adopted daughter took over the business after Madame Washington died, which was later sold to another beauty products company.
Her Grandnephew Royston Scott recently produced a short documentary about Madame Washington and her beauty empire entitled “The Sara Spencer Washington Story”. It is due to screen at the Hollywood Black Film Festival on February 26th. I will keep you posted about any other screenings or opportunities to view his documentary about this amazing woman.
Official Facebook Page of “The Sara Spencer Washington Story”:
Official Website for “The Sara Spencer Washington Story”: