Johnson Products

George  Ellis Johnson, born in Richton, Mississippi in 1927, founded the Johnson Products Company in Chicago in 1954. Johnson had worked  as a chemist for the Fuller cosmetics company for 10 years before  starting his own business with 500 dollars  in borrowed money. The  company represented part  of a larger  trend of growth in the African  American beauty industry after World  War II and fit into a longstanding tradition of black-owned beauty  businesses that included the Poro Company of Annie Turnbo Malone, the  Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and  Sara Washington’s Apex Company. Johnson Products was different from these  businesses in that it focused, initially, on the male hair care market and  on chemical straightening products that  were safer and  easier for customers to use at home.

Johnson’s first product was Ultra  Wave, a chemical hair  relaxer  for men.  Ultra Sheen, a chemical relaxer  designed for women, came  out  in 1957  and  helped to revolutionize the  African  American female  hair  care  industry. Before  the  1960s, black women had almost  exclusively straightened their  hair using  oils and heated metal  pressing combs. Chemical straighteners (commercial and  homemade) had always been  too  harsh, causing longer  hair  to break  and  turning black  hair  red; in addition, they  were generally  considered socially  inappropriate for women to use. By the 1970s, chemical relaxers for women were commonplace in the African American beauty  market. Johnson Products also  innovated by developing Afro Sheen, a line of products designed in the 1960s  to care for unprocessed hair, and by introducing Gentle  Treatment, the first no-lye  relaxer  on the market, in 1981. Johnson Products was also  a prolific  advertiser in  black  magazines like Ebony, notably using  innovative and original  appeals  to black pride in advertisements for Afro Sheen in the late 1960s  and early 1970s.

Johnson Products was the first African American business to be listed on the New  York  Stock  Exchange in 1973,  but,  like many  black-owned beauty  enterprises  in  this  period, it faced  increasing competition from  white-owned firms. The  company confronted additional problems in 1975  when  the  Federal  Trade Commission forced  Johnson Products to sign  a consent decree  admitting that the  lye (or sodium hydroxide) in Ultra  Sheen could  cause  hair  to  fall out  and irritate  skin,  and  mandating warning labels  on  packaging. White-owned companies  that  produced relaxers  did  not,  to  George   Johnson’s  chagrin, have  to put  similar  labeling  on  packaging until  several  years later.  In 1993,  the  Miami based, white-owned Ivax Corporation absorbed the Johnson Products Company, retaining the brand name, product lines, and  Chicago headquarters. Carson Inc. bought Johnson Products in  1998,  and  L’Oréal  bought Carson in  2000.  This time,  L’Oréal  replaced the  Johnson brand with  their  own,  but  moved  its entire African  American hair  and  cosmetics line  to the  Johnson Products building in Chicago in 2002.  However, Johnson Products brands continue to be produced. In 2001,  the  Department of Justice  ordered L’Oréal  to divest  its interest in the Ultra  Sheen and  Gentle  Treatment brands. Wella  bought the  interest in  these lines  and  continued to  manufacture them  after  Procter and  Gamble bought that  company in 2003.

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