“No Lye,” the FDA Inspection of G.T. Young, Inc.

Today’s post comes from Zoë A. Zaharakis, a history education undergraduate student at Temple University, with the help of Archivist Grace Schultz. Zoë interned with the National Archives at Philadelphia virtually this fall as a part of the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative (CFI), a partnership with the Temple University College of Education Social Studies faculty and more than 30 regional cultural institutions. The Research Services department at the National Archives at Philadelphia was delighted to participate in the nation’s only educational fieldwork program based in archives, museums, and libraries, and to learn from our intern’s vast education experience and knowledge. See more information about the Cultural Fieldwork Initiative and NARA’s pivotal role in developing the program here.

In 1920, the Philadelphia Station of the Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into G. T. Young, a South Philadelphia based company which produced Black beauty and hair care products. The inspection was prompted by a letter from a Mr. John Smith, initially sent to the Central District in Missouri, claiming that a hair relaxer called “Climax” had injured a man named Howard Taylor. In his letter Smith wrote that “[h]is hair … eaten off and scalp made red raw from this stuff” and that G. T. Young “got his chemist to combine different properties of different drugs that would produce the same effect as the red seal lie in his Climax.” The letter also claimed that large amounts of lye are stored on the third floor of the building at 1606 South Street.

The Chief of the Central District of the FDA forwarded this complaint to the Chief of the Eastern District, who directed the inspectors at the Philadelphia Station to inspect the G. T. Young factory and products. “While, of course, this product does not come within the provisions of the Food and Drug Act, it might be well to have an inspector investigate G. T. Young Inc. as perhaps they might be manufacturing products that would come within the provisions of the Act. Also investigate the possibility of a fraud under the postal laws.” The inspectors at the Philadelphia Station complied with the order and began their inspection of the G. T. Young’s factory, Climax, and their other products on June 22, 1920.

red label with white text "Climax: king of hair straighteners | makes kinky or curly hair straight" and directions for use
Label for Climax Hair Straightener by G.T. Young (NAID 172679426)

Ultimately the inspectors found that G. T. Young’s operations were legal and their products were harmless. Young gave the inspector the composition of the Climax King of Instant Hair Straightener and addressed the fact that the only possibly harmful ingredient was the sodium hydroxide. He further explained that the proportions within the product do not cause a detrimental effect on the scalp or hair “except under the most careless use of this preparation.” Specific instructions were provided with the products as to their use, which emphasized the importance of the pomade and the X-Ray Hair Shine as they offset the caustic nature of the sodium hydroxide.

detailed instructions on how to apply Climax and how not to use it
Instructions for Climax Hair Straightener (NAID 172679426)

The inspection also revealed that G. T. Young had received threatening letters which attempted to extort the company from the same John Smith whose letters had launched the investigation in the first place.

While the FDA inspection was relatively uneventful, it does provide a snapshot in time of G. T. Young, Incorporated: a Black owned and operated business which produced beauty and hair products for Black people. According to the FDA’s report, G. T. Young Inc. consisted of two or three employees (which included Giles T. and Sophia Young, along with a man named Harry D. Smith). The company was run out of a basement of a barbershop/home on South Street in Philadelphia and planned to move or expand to 619 South 15th Street. Grossing about $5,000 annually, all of the production was done by hand, and the products were distributed to a variety of businesses in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St Louis, and Wilmington.

In cooperation with the inspection, G. T. Young provided labels of their products. The products offered, and the ways in which they were advertised, say a lot about the ways in which white supremacy and racism influenced the beauty standards of the time. For example, G. T. Young developed, trademarked, and sold a product called “Sophia’s Whitening Cream” which was meant to “brighten” and cleanse the skin.

red label with white text, Sophia's Whitening Cream and picture of a Black woman with long straightened hair at center
Label for Sophia’s Whitening Cream (NAID 172679426)

Other products made by G. T. Young included “Sophia’s Ex-Ray Shine” which was meant to be “a delightful dressing and straightening cream; giving to the hair perfect tone and gloss;” “Sophia’s Cream Brown Pomade” which made “hard or harsh hair soft and fluffy– relieves itching and dandruff;” and “Sophia’s Glycerine Shampoo” which was a “delightful cleansing wash for the hair.”

circular white label with photo of Black woman with long straightened hair in the center
Label for Sophia’s Ex-Ray Hair Shine (NAID 172679426)
white label with blue text
Label for Sophia’s Glycerine Shampoo (NAID 172679426)

The FDA inspection file can be viewed in its entirety in the National Archives Catalog here. The National Archives at Philadelphia holds a collection of Product Inspection Files from the Philadelphia Station of the Food and Drug Administration. These records offer a unique insight into products dating from 1906 to 1946, acting as a kind of time capsule. These files are indexed and searchable through the series Product Inspection Files (NAID 631047). Please email philadelphia.archives@nara.gov with questions or to request further information.

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