Inside any black beauty parlor especially one as venerable as the Cardozo Sisters Hairstylists on Georgia Avenue, a unique chapter of the black experience unfolds.
It contains customs that were treasured ambivalently by one generation, scorned by another in the black pride movement but acknowledge by all as parts of a special ritual.
Places like the Cardozo Sisters have a rich panorama of unduplicated scents, sounds and sights - beginning with the process or pressing hair in which tight, wooly hair is straigthened by applying heat, an experience most black women have had.
The ritual is captured, first, with the scent of heat, furnished by the warm comb and the operator's tiny stove; it also embraces the pomade that perfumes the air, and, occasionally, the traces of a single when the customer wiggles or the hairdresser wasn't warned about a tender scalp.
Then the scents mix with a set of sounds: the psst as the operator checks the temperature of the comb, then a slight sizzle as the comb touches the hair then the rhythmic click of the curling irons, as the pressed hair disappears into its two curved tongues, and is forcefully transformed into a shinning tendril.
For nearly 50 years this ritual, and many other aspects of the cosmetology unique to blacks, has been performed at the Cardozo Sisters. Through the owners and patrons, a glimpse of a changing culture - the attitudes of blacks toward themselves and the white perspective of black esthetics, can be explored.
The Cardozo women grandaughters of Francis Cardozo, a prominent Reconstruction educator and politician have been initmate participants in that history. In the 50 years since Elizabeth Cardozo Barker opened her business in a one-room apartment, they have seen many kinds of changes. In fashion styles, from the bob and the pompadour to the French twist, the beehive and the Afro. In customs and attitudes also, from the time the founder had to pass for while to learn the latest techniques to the shame a black woman had for her nappy hair, a feature much of white society once ridiculed.
Today the black beauty parlor no longer has a monopoly on the styles and pocketbooks of black women. Today young white women are trying for the frizzed, Afro look. And the young women from Howard University coming to the Cardoz Sisters are once again asking for a pressed and curled look.
Despite all the changes, the Cardozo Sisters remains a thriving institutions. Now managed by Camilla Bradford Fauntroy, the sister-in-law of the politician, it retains the original name. What it offers that is unique today are traditions and the comfort that Gwendolyn Brooks the Pultizer-Prize winning poet, refers to in her stories. For instance beauty scene: "Could sit here and think, or not think, of problems. Think, or not. One did not have to, if one wished not. 'If she burns me today - if she yanks at my hair - if she calls me sweetheart of dahlin.'" The parlor also offers the social solidarity, Evelyn Wallace, a customer for the last 30 years, enjoys, "The Cardozo Sister have always stood out. Even now, with blacks going everywhere it's quite a meeting place. And the stylists keep up."
Like many institutions, the Cardozo Sisters was born out of necessity. "I was a widow with two small children. I needed to be both the supporter and the mother," explained Elizabeth Baker, now 76 and a year-round resident of Cpae Cod.
Hairdressing wasn't alien to the founder - both her grandmother and mother had beauty shops in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. "My grandmother, Emma Warwick, had a chain of shops. Her clientele was white. As children we visited her, and Margaret, my older sister, had to fan the long haif of the white ladies with a palm leaf fan. There weren't any electric dryers," said Mrs. Barker.
An artistic temperament ran through the family too - one aunt was a sculptor, and a cousin, Eslanda became the fiery wife of Pual Robeson.
All the Cardozo sisters were fair enough to pass for white. And they did, when the advancement of their careers called for it. They were tall, attractive women, with wide-set, deept eyes, high cheekbones on nearly perfect oval faces, and lustrous, naturally straight hair.
A tone of daring and pride remains in Elizabeth Baker's robust voice as she discussed those incidents. "My customers asked about marcel waving, so I went to Emile, a leading white hairdresser on Connecticut Avenue to study. They didn't know I was a Negro."
"Then, for my customers who needed vigorous pressing, I went to Madame catlin on Florida Avenue to perfect the hot work. We simply wanted to make all kinds of hair that black women have beautiful." Yet, because of these dual skills the shop earned the reputation of catering to black women with 'inbetween' hair, not too coarse and not too fine. In addition, most of those women had light skin. As a result, the Cardozo Sisters were labeled "elitist." "That was never true," said Mrs. Baker. "We worked the whole gamut." But the family name and the well-known customers gave the business a social cachet and a comfortable prosperity, the shop eventually employed 25 operators and expanded to five storefronts.
The Cardozo Sisters was plush for its day. It was filled with plants; booths were close off by organza curtains and operators wore crisp white uniforms. For years no music was allowed and the operators ate in a kitchen the owners provided. "Mrs. Barker was very concerned about the comfort and health of the employees," said her sister, Catherine Lewis, who joined Elizabeth and Margaret (who specialized in product testing) in the late 1940s. Asked why she repeatedly called her sister by her married name, Mrs. Lewis replied, "Everyone was called by their married names because we thought that was one way to show respect; we were not working in the kitchen anymore."
So, in the private world of the Cardozo Sisters, the customer was not 'Miss Ann' and when she left, with the silver clips holding down her waves, or with the loose, bumper curls the Sisters specialized in, gently pushed into an upsweep, she felt special. She felt she had arrived. The clients kept their appointments for years; and 10 a.m. each morning four clerks handled calls from people checking on cancellations.
By the mid-1940s, when two other sisters joined the business, the Cardozo pattern was firmly established. The sisters' parents, Blanche and Francis Cardozo, a school principal, had six children. Frances Payne, a schoolteacher, and Warwick Cardozo, a physican, never joined the business.
Even now in her modest living room in Michigan Park. Catherine Lewis, the youngest sister, maintains a certain detachment from the heavy aroma of Dixie Peach pomade and the clicking of the curling irons.
"Our family always had a sense of self-pride. But a feeling we were special, no, that would have been arrogance. We simply tried to be the best," said Mrs. Lewis, trying to downplay the family's importance. For 45 years her husband Harold, taught history at Howard University and for many of those years she helped him in his research. She also worked as the manager at the Cardozo Sisters from 1948 to 1965. "My sisters were the best because they never sat on their accomplishments; they sought out the new fashions and the new styles. It's the same now and I do go as a patron."
The fourth sister associated with the business.Emmeta, is always described as the beautiful, "Spanish-looking one," whose exuberance and restlessness took her to Paris, where she studied hairdressing and to New York and a stint as a Ziegfeld Girl. From 1930 to 1939, when she was a show girl, she was passing for white.
"I didn't enjoy the experience. I worried for fear they would find me out but I did enjoy the glamour," said Mrs. Hurley, who now lives in Columbia, Md. After her show business fling, she had a beauty salon in Harlem, worked as a matron at an acronautics plant, joined the WACS in World War II, and operated another slaon in Detroit. She returned to Washington in 1947, worked with her sisters briefly, then opened a branch in Anacostia. "I could not duplicate the institution my sisters had built but I also believed it was not only the business, but the effect you wanted to have on lives of the customers. I think our impact was one of self-respect."
Participating in an institution that worked at social change, especially in an area as basic as a woman's image of herself, was one reason Camilla Fauntroy joined the Cardozo as a teen-ager.
Even though she has been at the shop for 30 years she has never studied beauty. "Oh," she explained, rather wistfully, "I have often said I would like to take up hair but someone has to know the business end." Physically she is very different from the Cardozo sisters, a short woman, with dark skin, a full face, and dark, thick hair that she wears in a short, cap-like style. "The hairstyles really go full-circle. Years ago we had a style called the snatch back with the hair brushed off the face. Now Major Fawcett, (sic) the T.V. star, what's her name, now she does that. And the blacks ask for it, just like the whites want the Afro that we are almost through with," said Mrs. Fauntroy.
In 1968, customers paid a total of $300,000 at the Cardozo Sisters but for a five-year period after that business dropped. "We lost business because of the rising crime. We used to be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. but some people were afraid to travel and we started closing at 6 p.m. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] about five years for business to pick up again," said Mrs. Barker, who retired in 1973. This year the shop's accountant has estimated that the business will gross $350,000.
Her institutions is much as she left it. The curtains on the booth are long gone; the front room is wide open, the blue paint chipping. And the 18 operators, four of whom have been there 30 years, can wear pants now but still walk around quietly on white crepesoled shoes. A boutique and men's salon has been added and everyone is iar small of pomade revives the $6.45. And, once the buzzer lets the customer in the front door, the familiar small of pomade revives the uni-unique ritual.