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Mrs. H.E. Wilson, mogul?

The curious new history of an American literary original

By P. Gabrielle Foreman and Katherine Flynn
February 15, 2009
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IT'S NOT OFTEN that a new figure emerges in the story of American literature, and one of the most intriguing of our time is Harriet E. Wilson, the once-indentured servant who, in 1859, published a book with the arresting title "Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black." Though little-noticed at the time, when the book was rediscovered in 1981 by Henry Louis Gates Jr., it was hailed as the first novel to be published by an African-American woman.

Since then, Wilson, who spent much of her life in New Hampshire and Boston, has emerged from obscurity to become an author whose book is regularly taught in college classrooms. Her autobiographical tale of an interracial girl abandoned by her white mother, and ignored by neighbors preoccupied with slavery in the South, is known for its searing critique of idealized New England life, as well as a pioneering blend of literary styles.

But who was Wilson herself? For many years, all that was known emerged from the autobiographical clues she left in her book. At the time she wrote it, it was thought, she was a desperate, chronically ill widow who turned to writing in the hope of rescuing herself and young son from poverty and pauperism.

Our new research reveals a more startling story. Before publishing a novel, it appears, Wilson was already a resourceful and surprisingly successful entrepreneur, with a line of hair-care products that would eventually expand up and down the East Coast. The rich trove of advertisements that her business generated, never before collated or analyzed, offers fascinating glimpses into the America of the time and the unexpected role a black woman played during an era when most faced almost insurmountable racial and gender barriers.

Beginning in 1857, two years before the publication of "Our Nig," her advertisements began appearing in a local New Hampshire paper. Asking "Who Wants a Good Head of Hair?," the ads promised that "Mrs. Wilson's Hair Regenerator" was no humbug. The ads vanished from papers just months before her book was copyrighted, when - according to her own story - Wilson found herself too ill to work. Her book contains tantalizing hints about Wilson's beginnings in business. A kind friend provided her with a "valuable recipe," she writes. A letter in the book's appendix attests to Wilson's success selling products that "restore gray hair to its natural color" before she fell sick.

Her only son died in 1860, and 10 weeks later Wilson returned to her hair business. To judge by the amount of advertising it generated, its growth was exponential. She connected with a white druggist - also, coincidentally, named Wilson. In 1860 and 1861, at least 1,500 ads for Mrs. Wilson's hair products appeared in a score of papers across New England and as far south as New Jersey. They ran in nine different papers in New York state alone. In the New York Times, a wholesaler listed more than 4,000 bottles of her products for sale - if the buyer could pay in cash.

Her entrepreneurial career may have been as pioneering as her literary one. Before the Civil War, patent medicines were still in their infancy, and national cosmetic brands were unknown. Large ads such as these were just starting to appear and ones featuring portraits, as some of hers did, were very rare until after the Civil War.

There is little doubt that the Mrs. Wilson whose products were sold all over the Northeast is the same woman who wrote "Our Nig." She copyrighted the book as "Mrs. H.E. Wilson," the same name blown into her hair products' bottles and the name listed in early ads as the preparer of the formula. We have also uncovered surviving bottles with rare partial labels that almost certainly match her advertisements. Larger ads, intriguingly, feature what may be Wilson's only surviving likeness. One series briefly outlines Mrs. H.E. Wilson's business history and corresponds to what we know of the author's growing hair-care enterprise.

In some ways, Wilson's success prefigures that of Madame C.J. Walker, the famous entrepreneur of the early 20th century who became the richest African-American of her time. Both women started selling their products door to door; and with agents in city after city, "Mrs. Wilson's Hair Dressing and Hair Regenerator" grew into a large-scale enterprise 50 years before Madame C.J. Walker's did.

But unlike Madame Walker, Mrs. Wilson's hair business didn't appear to be pitched toward an African-American market. The portrait that appears in Wilson's ads features a young woman with long wavy hair, recalling the book's description of its heroine's shining curls and glossy ringlets. Though those who perused the papers were meant to assume that the pretty brunette was Mrs. Wilson, few would have looked at the illustration and imagined that she was black.

Wilson launched her hair business in a decade in which African-Americans were being officially shorn of their citizenship. Her ads began in 1857, the same year that the Supreme Court decided the infamous Dred Scott case declaring that blacks "had no rights the white man was bound to respect." Had Wilson been a man in 1860, she would have been able to vote in only five of America's 33 states. However hard-working or educated, the vast majority of free black women - North and South - were limited to jobs of service and drudgery.

Wilson was one of the few to escape that life, although commercial success - as it was for many Americans - proved fragile. We don't yet know the particulars of her business arrangement with Henry P. Wilson, but as the nation braced for the Civil War, he sold his business and the ads trickled to a stop. After the war, Harriet Wilson moved to Boston, the city she called home until her death in 1900. With her characteristic boldness, she began anew; as Hattie Wilson, she became a minor Spiritualist celebrity, joining a religious and social movement that had millions of adherents. From 1867 through the 1880s, she lectured across New England, taught Sunday school, and hosted large gatherings that included music and birthday dramatic readings. In the Banner of Light, a national Spiritualist paper, Wilson was called "Boston's earnest and eloquent colored medium."

Wilson is a singular figure in a well-known American tradition, that of individual reinvention. Like her book, Wilson's life is no rags to riches story. Nevertheless, against overwhelming odds - as an author, speaker, and entrepreneur - Wilson made her mark in an era that kept most women of her race and status from doing more than imagining such a thing to be possible.

P. Gabrielle Foreman is a distinguished visiting professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College and professor of English and American studies at Occidental College. She is co-editor of an updated 150th anniversary edition of "Our Nig," due out this year. Katherine Flynn is a research manager at Procter & Gamble and a board-certified genealogist.

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