Marjorie S. Joyner’s patent is on display as the National Archives Museum’s Featured Document celebrating National Women’s Inventors Month through March 18. Today’s post comes from Jen Johnson, a curator at the National Archives at Kansas City.
Born in 1896 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Marjorie Stewart and her family moved to Ohio, then after her parent’s divorce, she joined her mother in Chicago in 1912. Four years later, she became the first African American to graduate from the A. B. Molar Beauty School (also spelled A.B. Moler).
Like most beauty culture schools at the time, her coursework at A.B. Molar consisted of a few weeks of classes and very little hands-on training. The training she did complete was on white women’s hair. Later in her career this became an asset, and she thought it was important that stylists could do all types of hair.
After graduation, she married Robert Joyner and opened a salon. While doing her mother-in-law’s hair, she realized she lacked the necessary skills to style black hair. At her mother-in-law’s encouragement, Joyner attended a lecture taught by hair-care mogul Madame C. J. Walker and later enrolled in the Walker Beauty School in Chicago. It was not long before Walker and Joyner became friends, and Walker offered Joyner a job teaching.
Madame C. J. Walker was the proprietor of the Walker Manufacturing Company based in Indianapolis, which employed thousands of African American women across the country as independent agents who sold her hair-care products. Walker agents had a rare opportunity to make a good, financially independent living.
In 1917, the Walker Manufacturing Company was the largest African American–owned company in the United States. Madame C. J. Walker also ran and operated a system of beauty schools, and she asked Joyner to take on the role of national adviser, eventually overseeing 200 schools.
While teaching students at the Walker Beauty School in Chicago and traveling as an adviser, Joyner had the idea to create a new device. One evening as she was making a pot roast, Joyner thought there must be a way that allowed multiple rods to be applied to the hair at once, greatly reducing the time needed to create curls and waves for women’s hair.
After tinkering and experimenting with different setups—using her pot roast rods—Joyner came up with her one-of-a-kind permanent wave machine. Not realizing she should patent her unique device, Joyner used it for a few years before filing for one. She submitted a petition and drawings on May 16, 1928. Joyner also secured a second patent for her permanent wave machine by filing a petition for her scalp protector invention.
The object of the invention is the construction of a simple and efficient machine that will wave the hair of both white and colored women. —Marjorie S. Joyner’s patent petition, 1928.
Joyner was devoted to her students, and in addition to her roles with the Walker Company, she founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity for beauty students in 1945 and, a year later, the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association.
Black women were typically not allowed in white beauty organizations, which prevented them from learning the newest styles and hair care techniques. After being denied entry to a beauty contest held by a white trade show, Joyner and the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association held their own trade shows to teach African American students and experts new styles or techniques. Joyner even took African American hairdressers to Paris to learn from experts there. She later helped draft the first cosmetology laws for the state of Illinois.
Because African American hairdressers made their own incomes without relying on white businesses, women like Joyner were able to be vocal about political issues. Joyner was active in the civil rights movement, encouraging voter registration and adopting the slogan, “Who you vote for and how you vote is your business—that you vote is our business.”
Joyner operated on the national level, too, becoming friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and establishing a lifelong friendship with Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune convinced her to join the Democratic National Committee, and in 1935 Joyner was one of the founding members of the National Council of Negro Women.
Over the course of her long career, Joyner taught thousands of stylists. Through this work she became an important figure in the civil rights movement. She died at her home in Chicago on December 7, 1994, at age 98.
Visit the special document display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from February 6 to March 18, 2020, to see Marjorie S. Joyner’s patent. February is also Black History Month. Visit our website for more information on our resources related to African American History.