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.