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Gardner, Edward George

GARDNER, Edward George

(b. 25 February 1925 in Chicago, Illinois), entrepreneur and founder of Soft Sheen Products, which became the largest African-American–owned beauty products company in the United States.

Gardner grew up in Chicago, which became his base throughout his life. He served in World War II as a staff sergeant, then returned to his hometown, where he married Bettiann, with whom he had four children. All but one of the Gardner children would eventually become involved in the company their parents founded.

After earning a B.A. at Chicago Teachers College, Gardner enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned a masters degree in education. In 1950 Gardner went to work in the Chicago public school system, where he would serve for the next fourteen years as an elementary-school principal. In addition to his work in education, Gardner had a part-time job as a sales representative for a black hair-care company.

For African Americans, hair care is a matter both of functionality and of something much deeper—something that has no analogue in the lives of most Americans descended from northern Europeans. On a practical level, the hair of African Americans is quite different from that of whites, and therefore the materials that work for whites are not likely to work for blacks. In the years since the Civil War, however, and especially during the 1960s, black hair-care came to have actual political and even spiritual significance. Because the texture and quality of their hair set African Americans apart from the mainstream, hair became a matter of pride, and hair care for African Americans became a special area of interest. Just as the clergyman was most likely the sole educated professional in a typical African-American community during Reconstruction, sellers of hair-care products were usually the entrepreneurs.

In 1954, just ten years before Gardner began the enterprise for which he would become noted, George E. Johnson borrowed $250 from a finance company and established Johnson Products. With the assistance of his wife, Joan, Johnson began manufacturing Ultra Wave, a hair straightener for men. That this would be the first item sold by Johnson Products says a great deal about the political implications of hair products for African Americans. Eager to fit in with the white community, many were willing to surrender the wiry, tight curls typical of African hair and undergo chemical treatments. This, however, would change in the course of the 1960s.

Recognizing that most hair-care companies created products solely for whites, Gardner saw great potential in the black hair-care market and decided to establish his own company. In 1964 he left his job with the school system and founded Soft Sheen Products Company, Inc., with Bettiann as his partner. Their first factory was in the basement of their Chicago home, where they began developing a line of straighteners, shampoos, and other products. The first two Soft Sheen products, which the Gardners tested on their children before marketing them, were Soft Sheen Hair and Scalp Conditioner and Miss Cool Five Minute Fast Set. The latter allowed users to set their hair without having to wear rollers while they slept.

Soft Sheen's inaugural product line established the company on the conservative side of the central black hair-care dilemma. By contrast, the late 1960s saw a more radical development in African-American hairstyles, the Afro. The Afro was radical in the truest sense of the word, indicating a return to roots, since the style—also called a "natural"—was the most basic and effortless coiffure for persons of African heritage. Yet it was also radical by association with the many figures who sported Afros in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and others.

Soon the Afro spread to the world of sports and entertainment, becoming associated with stars from Jim Brown to Jimi Hendrix to the Jackson Five. Johnson Products responded by developing a whole line associated with the natural hairstyle, including Afro Sheen, Sta-Sof-Fro, and Bantu. Gardner and Soft Sheen, however, continued to market products for African Americans who desired straight hair. For this reason, growth was fairly slow for the first fifteen years of the company's existence; only in the late 1970s, when the Afro was on its way out, did Soft Sheen begin to emerge as the market leader.

In 1979 Soft Sheen introduced a hair relaxer called Care Free Curl, which, in contrast to other such products on the market, took two hours, rather than eight, to take effect. The product was an instant success, and with sales topping $500,000, Soft Sheen had a banner year in 1979. Greater success, however, awaited the company in the years that followed. In 1980 Soft Sheen began developing a vast array of shampoos, conditioners, gels, and sprays, and by 1982 sales were at $55 million.

In 1985 Gardner turned over the leadership of the company to his son Gary, who assumed the titles of president and chief executive officer. By 1989 the popularity of the "Jheri-curl" hairstyle worn by Michael Jackson and others had helped push Soft Sheen sales above $87.2 million. During the early 1990s, however, the company fell on hard times, thanks to the growing popularity of more natural-looking hairstyles. Leadership passed to Gardner's daughter Terri in January 1996, and in July 1998 Soft Sheen was sold to L'Oreal for $160 million.

Some African-American critics have derided Gardner and his company for their association with attempts by blacks to "look white." This, however, is an unfair appraisal of a man who became one of America's most noted black entrepreneurs at a time when such figures were rare. Furthermore, throughout his years with Soft Sheen, both in the leadership and later as a powerful voice on the board, Gardner saw his purpose as one of service to the community. The company, he once said, is simply "a tool to make life better for people."

A profile of the Gardner family is in USA Today (28 Feb. 1991); otherwise, information on Gardner is scarce and consists primarily of articles on Soft Sheen. Examples include company profiles in Black Enterprise (Sept. 1995), Crain's Chicago Business (6 Jan. 1997), and Chain Drug Review (19 June 2000). An analysis of the ethnic hair-care industry is in Black Enterprise (Nov. 2000).

Judson Knight

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