Hoodoo in Theory and Practice by catherine yronwode
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Two empty tins of "Lucky Brown" hair care products and a box of "Lucky Brown" face powder demonstrate this. They interest me for their beautiful graphics and for what they say about "luck" and about African-American culture of their era.
This Lucky Brown Pressing Oil tin came out of a warehouse trove in Chicago and was never used. It is about 4" in diameter and 3/4 inch tall, printed in a limited palette of black, red, and yellow, and in size and shape it vaguely resembles a tin of shoe polish. The image is that of a beautiful young black woman -- or, rather, a beautiful young woman with African facial features and Caucasian skin colour -- in a bright red heart-shaped frame. The left side of her hair is curly (visual code for kinky), but the right side, which she is combing, is as straight and black as an Asian woman's.
The type on the top of the tin is laid out inside formalized ribbon-shapes and reads:
LUCKY BROWN Reg. U.S. Pat. Off. PRESSING OIL Contents: - 1.5 oz. Distributed by Chicago Products Co., Chicago, U.S.A.
The type on the side of the tin reads:
PRESSES YOUR HAIR IN PLACE KEEPS YOUR HAIR PRETTY
"Pretty" in this case is code for non-kinky.
The type on the back consists of lengthy instructions for the use of Lucky Brown Pressing Oil with and without a hot comb and gives further (and contradictory) information on the distributor, as well as a date:
Distributed and copyright 1935 by Famous Products Co. Chicago, Ill., U.S.A.
It is the background design on the tin, continuing from the top around the sides and onto the bottom, that evokes the "lucky" imagery of the brand name. A checkerboard of yellow and black squares is attractively laid out so that the yellow squares are blank but the black squares contain small outline drawings of "lucky" artifacts in yellow. There are four of these, which repeat over and over: heart / four-leaf clover / wishbone / horseshoe. Inexplicably, close inspection of the checkerboard pattern reveals that one square, the one touching the beautiful young woman's left shoulder, is NOT part of the repeat-pattern. It contains a fifth "secret-lucky" image -- a key.
The entire effect of this tin is to reinforce ethnic stereotypes while conceding their transformative and uplifting power.
The woman is a "Lucky Brown" because she is so lovely and so pale-skinned; she is on the verge of "passing" for white, and all that remains for her is to have "pretty" hair, straight, unkinky, not even wavy. But although she lives in the North, in Chicago, she proudly carries with her the down-home Southern superstitions of her rural background -- belief in the efficacy of lucky tokens and talismans. She implicitly claims that using Lucky Brown Pressing Oil will grant one more than "pretty" hair -- it will afford the user love and luck and dreams-come-true.
And so it may have done.
And so i hope it did...
This Lucky Brown Hair Dressing tin came from the same Chicago warehouse trove and likewise has never been used. It is copyright dated 1935 and was distributed by Famous Products Co., Chicago, Ill., U.S.A. It is 3 inches in diameter and 1 3/4 inches tall, printed in a limited palette of black, red, blue, and yellow, and vaguely resembles a tin of enamel paint. It has a plain metal bottom, so all of the text and imagery is placed upon the lid and the sides. The artwork is by the same artist who produced the first tin design, but this one bears a different assortment of "lucky" emblems.
Again the major theme is a heart and the major colour is red: in a pale blue heart-shaped frame against a red background the same beautiful young black woman -- or, rather, the same beautiful young woman with African facial features and Caucasian skin colour -- from the first tin is being kissed from behind, over her left shoulder, by a handsome young black man -- or, rather, a handsome young man with African facial features and Caucasian skin colour. Both man and woman have hair as straight and black as a couple of Asians. Surrounding the heart from below is a yellow horseshoe on which the word "Hair Dressing" appears.
The entire text of the lid reads:
LUCKY BROWN Reg. U. S. Pat. Off. HAIR DRESSING SLICKS HAIR IN PLACE FOR MEN AND WOMEN HAVE BEAUTIFUL HAIR
The side of the lid is decorated with the following lucky emblems (white on red) and words (black on red)
heart / four-leaf clover / eye / horseshoe / keyBEAUTIFIES THE HAIRheart / four-leaf clover / eye / horseshoe / keyHAVE STRAIGHTER LOOKING GLOSSY HAIR
The side of the tin carries before and after pictures of the man and the woman with instructions for use by each gender. Probably the saddest words on the tin are those that accompany the picture of the woman before using Lucky Brown: "Krimpy, Bad Hair."
There is nothing "bad" about her hair, of course; it is naturally arranged in what is now called an Afro, but she is very downcast and sorrowful and each time i look at her i feel a wave of sympathy for the generations of young women who have been oppressed because of the texture of their hair.
In February, 1996, at an antique store in Sebastopol, California, i found a third "Lucky Brown" product box from the 1930s -- Lucky Brown Face Powder. The box is still half-full of powder, so this is not from a warehouse find, like the hair care product tins. The artwork is by the same artist who drew the other Lucky Brown package art and it depicts the same beautiful young black woman with Caucasian skin and straight hair who appears on the hair care products packages. This time her hair is shortish and marcelled; she wears golden ball earrings and she is holding a white powder puff to her chin and smiling.
The woman is inside a pale blue-grey heart and the heart is surrounded by a bright yellow upward-facing horseshoe with the words LUCKY BROWN inscribed on it. The background of the box is bright pink, with black and white text:
Around the side of the box are the usual assortment of good luck symbols, three per side:LUCKY BROWN Reg. U.S. Pat. Off. Best Highly Quality Perfumed FACE POWDER
eye / heart / four-leaf clover
heart / horseshoe / key
dice / heart / wishbone
dice / four-leaf clover / heart
This marks the only dice i have seen on a Lucky Brown product package. The five-spot is showing, if that matters. As always, however, it is the heart that predominates, signifying the love-luck promised by the manufacturer.
Although the text on the bottom of the box is not as negative as the "bad hair" warning on Lucky Brown Hair Dressing, it conveys coded messages of African-American self-image diffidence that mark the era in which Lucky Brown products were sold:
LUCKY BROWN FACE POWDER reg. U.S. Pat. Off. "Lucky Brown" face powder is made from a special formula that is compounded and blended to beautify brown, tan, and gold- den complexions. People having this type of beauty should not use the ordinary variety of face powder but should insist on "L U C K Y B R O W N" which is made specially to harmonize with the skin and beautify and lighten the complexion. When you use up this box, order another from your dealer. If your dealer cannot supply you, send 25c in stamps or coin to company. Contents 1.6 ounces Copr. 1938 Distributed by Famous Products Company Chicago, Ill. USA
and, rubber-stamped at the bottom, the colour of the powder in this box, FLESH, which is code for "very pale Caucasian pink." The lucky emblems used on Lucky Brown products invoke love, luck (including monetary and gambling luck), protection from the evil eye, and wishes coming true.
Pretty nice bonuses for cosmetics to offer, don't you think?
Lucky Brown cosmetics were distributed by Famous Products, owned by Morton Neumann. a Jewish American chemist in Chicago, Illinois, whose Valmor company also manufactured and packaged hoodoo curios and spiritual supplies such as Genuine Mo-Jo Brand lodestones under the King Novelty Company name and produced cosmetics under the Sweet Georgia Brown and Madame Jones names. Neumann's chief competition came from the Memphis based Lucky Heart Company owned by the Shapiro family, which marketed a similar assortment of African-American cosmetics and Lucky Heart hoodoo curios. Both companies sold through a system of agents who lived in the Soiuth, as well as by direct mail iorder through ads in the black-owned and nationally-distributed Chicago Defender newspaper.
Neumann was a major (probably THE major) manufacturer and distributor of hoodoo curios and cosmetics to urban and rural African-American communities from the early 1930s until well into the late 1950s. He maintained four separate lines: of goods -- cosmetics and curios.
Madam Jones Co.: Products: Beauty Supplies; Cosmetics. Labels: All Madame Jones Co. labels are pre-zip code era Catalogue: I have never seen a Madame Jones Co. catalogue. Famous Products: Products: Beauty Supplies; Cosmetics, Spiritual Supplies. Labels: All Famous Products labels are pre-zip code era. Catalogue: I have never seen a Famous Products Co. catalogue. Valmor Products Co.: Products: Beauty Supplies; Cosmetics. Labels: Valmor labels can be either pre and post zip code eras. A few pre zip code era Famous Products labels were re-made during the post zip code era as Valmor labels (e.g. Look Me Over Perfume), but at no time did the two line-names appear together on one label. Catalogue: Valmor catalogues were printed both on slick paper (full colour) and on newsprint (hand-cut separations; spot colour). King Novelty: Products: No products; the name applies to a catalogue only. Labels: King Novelty name does not appear on any labels. Catalogue: King Novelty catalogues were printed on newsprint, never on slick paper.
As King Novelty / Famous Products, the Jewish American chemist Morton Neumann manufactured, distributed, and sold spiritual supplies retail, by mail order, and through agents.
Neumann was born in Chicago, spent some time in New York Cirty as a young man working as a jewelry setter, and returned to Chicago to found his own cosmetics and chemical company. An accomplished inventor, he patented a wonderful type of incense which, when burned, left the faint trace of traceries of lucky numbers in the ashes, sold through King Novelty , his hoodoo and conjure supply company. (The ad at the top of the lodestones page is reproduced from the 1945 King Novelty Co. catalogue.)
Under two other company names, Valmor Products and the Madam Jones Co., he manufactured and sold cosmetics for the African-American market retail, by mail order, and through agents. He also set up Famous Products Distribution to handle distribution of the Valmor, Madam Jones, and King Novelty lines to other wholesalers and to large retailers.
Illustrations of labels, packaging, catalogue pages, advertisements, and agents' flyers for Valmor, King Novelty, Lucky Brown, Lucky Heart. Clover Horn, and other cosmetics and spiritual supply companies of the pre-World-War-Two era, plus further text-based information on the interplay between occultism and hoodoo in the inter-war period, can be found on these "Hoodoo in Theory and Practice" pages by cat yronwode:
copyright © 1995-2010 catherine yronwode. All rights reserved.
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