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The undeferred dreams of Elias Howe and Madame C. J. Walker

Many people dream of being rich and successful. But some people have had dreams — literal dreams — that led them to riches and success. Here are the tales of two of them.

In 1846, Elias Howe Jr. was awarded the first American patent for a lockstitch sewing machine. It was an invention that would dramatically increase the productivity of the apparel industry, free housewives from hours of drudgery, and make clothing more affordable to working-class families.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Howe was a machinist who learned his craft as an apprentice in the Lowell textile factories, then worked for a master mechanic in Cambridge. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the sewing machine he invented “proved to be five times faster than the swiftest hand sewers.” Howe wasn’t the first to create an apparatus for sewing. But he came up with the essential innovation that made such machines practical: the placement of the needle’s eye.


It was an innovation that long eluded him. Howe had struggled in poverty for months, trying to devise a machine that could stitch using a needle with a point at one end and an eye at the other — the kind of needle used by tailors and seamstresses when sewing by hand. But he couldn’t get it to work. “Day and night this point troubled him,” recounted Popular Mechanics in 1905, “and he was nearly beggared before, by a strange incident, he discovered where to put” the needle’s eye.

That “strange incident” was a dream.

One night, having fallen asleep in exhaustion after working fruitlessly on the problem, Howe dreamed that he was building a sewing machine for a savage king in a far-off land. The king gave him 24 hours to complete the machine, but in his dream, as in his waking life, he couldn’t get it to work. The deadline passed. The king’s warriors came to execute him. As he was being marched to his death, he noticed that the spears held by the warriors were all pierced near the point. All at once he realized — that was the solution he had been searching for.


He jerked awake at 4 a.m., and rushed to his workshop. “At nine o’clock,” Popular Mechanics reported, “the model of the needle with an eye at the point was finished.” He had the design detail he’d been searching for — a detail that would become standard feature on the tens of thousands of sewing machines that factories began turning out. When manufacturers (including Isaac Singer, founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Co.) were ordered to pay Howe royalties for using the idea he’d patented, it made him a wealthy man. His income soared to an estimated $100,000 per year, a fortune at the time. He died in 1867 at just 48, but his name, declared The New York Times in an obituary , had by then become “a familiar one in every household in this country,” and the “the great workman” was renowned worldwide.

Tale No. 2 is of Madam C. J. Walker, who was born as Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation the year Howe died. She was the daughter of two former slaves, and was only 7 when they died. Unschooled, married at 14, a widow at 20, she labored as a laundress to support herself and her daughter. From that hardscrabble start, Walker went on to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur — she is often described as the first female self-made millionaire in American history — and one of the greatest African-American philanthropists in the nation’s history.


Her wealth came from making and selling hair-care products for black women. She was plagued with a scalp condition that caused her hair to fall out in patches, and was convinced that she could better her economic circumstances if she could improve her appearance. But she had no luck with store-bought products, and the home remedies she experimented with didn’t help either. Her hair kept falling out, and she prayed to God for help.

One night in 1905, help came.

In an interview 14 years later with the Kansas City Star — by which point Walker had become the wealthiest black woman in New York — she said God had answered her prayer.

For one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp — and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.” When she tried the dream-inspired mixture on her friends’ hair, it helped them too. And so, she said, “I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.”

What followed was an amazing rags-to-riches saga. Walker moved to Denver with only $1.50 to her name, and found work as a cook. She saved her earnings until she could buy the ingredients needed to make a commercial supply of her hair product — and to advertise it in the black press.


It became clear that Walker had a genius for business. She started by selling her products door to door, then by mail order. She went on the road, holding demonstrations in other cities, and hiring an army of local sales representatives. She opened a beauty parlor and school to train a sales staff of “Walker agents.” She built a factory in Indianapolis and opened offices in Pittsburgh and New York. She expanded her line of hair products, and, as Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharp write in “Hair Story,” their 2001 book on the culture, politics, and history of black hair in America, pioneered the method of straightening hair “that was to become the foundation of the black beautician industry.”

Only a few years after the dream that launched her career, the impoverished ex-laundress had become, in the words of a Literary Digest headline, “Queen of Gotham’s Colored 400.” In an age when the average uneducated black woman made less than $10 a week, Walker owned four cars and three homes, including a 34-room mansion overlooking the Hudson River. She was a major benefactor of numerous charities, including the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute, and the YMCA.

“I am in the business world, not for myself alone,” she said in 1912, “but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.” Her own uplift had been meteoric. Decades before the civil rights movement, in a land still steeped in racism and polluted with segregation, Walker climbed from the poverty of the washtub to the nation’s corporate elite. It was an extraordinary achievement — and, even more extraordinary, it all began with a dream about how to fix her hair.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.