The Soft Sheen Products co-founder was a devoted advocate of Chicago’s African-American community.
By Tacuma R. Roeback
Edward G. Gardner, who died Monday at his Chicago home, co-founded one of history’s most enduring Black hair care brands. Yet, Gardner would also cement his legacy as a devoted advocate of Chicago’s African-American community.
Gardner and his wife Bettiann created what would become Soft Sheen Products out of their West Chesterfield home on Chicago’s Southside out of sheer necessity.
While working as a teacher and administrator for Chicago Public Schools and raising four children, Gardner sold hair care products on the side to make some extra money. That’s when, in 1964, he had the idea to develop his product.
He started in the basement of his house and went to work until he developed a hair and scalp conditioner that he felt was “pretty good,” he told the Defender in a 2011 interview.
He shopped his product to beauticians across Chicago and discovered that they liked it.
“It eventually got to the point where I was making more money selling my hair care products than I was in the school system,” he said.
Eventually, Gardner was also able to sell in retail stores like Walgreens.
“My wife took care of the books and paid the bills and so forth, and my children at that time were teenagers, and they would go work with me and screw tops on the jars and do things like that. We all were very much involved in different aspects of the business. It was a family business.” he said.
How Gardner’s Company Became a Black Hair Care Giant
Eventually, his products — which expanded to include shampoos, conditioners and relaxers — became staples in African-American households nationwide.
In the 1980s, there was a good chance that if you ventured into a Black home, you would find a Soft Sheen product like Care Free Curl, Let’s Jam, Frizz Free, Sportin’ Waves, Wave Nouveau or Optimum Care.
Through his manufacturing plant on 87th Street, Gardner provided jobs for Black people.
Eventually, Soft Sheen would have 400 employees and full-year sales of $80 million, becoming the country’s largest black-owned beauty products company.
In 1998, the French cosmetics company L’Oreal S.A. acquired Soft Sheen, now known as Softsheen-Carson.
How Gardner Cared For His Community
But Gardner’s impact on Chicago, where he spent most of his life, is as palpable and significant as it is in Black hair care.
Concerned with crime and its impact on the African-American community, he helped to create the Black on Black Love initiative.
One of his most notable contributions was helping to elect Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983. According to the book “Harold, the People’s Mayor: The Biography of Harold Washington,” Gardner wrote a $5,000 check to help fund the eventual mayor’s voter registration campaign.
He also loaned his company’s creative staff to help with Washington’s campaign.
Gardner even owned a stake in the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls.
In that 2011 interview, Gardner reflected on his legacy.
As it turns out, founding Soft Sheen and turning it into one of the most successful African American companies in history was only part of the equation.
“We had to have the black community feel as though they were a part of the business, as well as improve the quality of life of the Afro American person,” he said.
“When you consider that there were very few major manufacturing companies owned by blacks throughout the nation, those that were successful had a responsibility to give back as much as possible.”
“We enjoyed doing that part of the job. That, to us, was just as important as increasing sales within the company,” Gardner said.