Martha Matilda Harper

Martha Matilda Harper was an entrepreneur, franchise industry pioneer, inventor, humanitarian, and the founder of Harper Salons.

"Be equal to any problem that arises. Never give up.” – Martha Matilda Harper

Martha Matilda Harper (Sept 10, 1857 – Aug 3, 1950) was an entrepreneur, franchise industry pioneer, inventor, and the founder of Harper Salons. At the time of her death in 1950, many obituaries cited her rags to riches story, while only a handful properly credited her for creating the first retail format franchise business model, as well as a social franchising business model.  Martha Matilda Harper launched a retail franchise business 60 years before Ray Kroc (McDonalds). 

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who was Martha matilda Harper?

Born in Ontario, Canada, Martha began life with limited prospects, and in an era where females had little to no free will over their own lives, both personally and professionally; decisions were largely made by the dominant male in their life (fathers, husbands, brothers, etc.). At age 7, her father forced her to work as a house servant to help support the large and impoverished Harper family. She remained in servitude in Canada until 1879, when the doctor in whose household Martha worked gifted her with a hair tonic recipe that would change the course of Martha’s life.

With this natural hair tonic recipe in hand, Martha left Canada in 1879 and relocated to Rochester, NY in search of a better life. She found work as a servant to Luella J. Roberts, a wealthy woman prominent in Rochester society. Martha’s duties included attending to Ms. Roberts’ haircare and beauty needs. It’s important to note that during this era in the United States, haircare was performed in the privacy of one’s home, not in a public beauty shop. Martha was so skilled at haircare, that soon other affluent Rochester women were visiting Luella Roberts’ home specifically to have Martha tend to their beauty needs.

In 1888, Martha invested her life savings of $360 ($10,345 in 2021 dollars) and opened her first Harper Method Hair Parlor, the first public beauty salon in Rochester. She created The Harper Method of haircare, an elaborate 120-minute process which included scalp and shoulder massages, facials, hair dressing, and other procedures to stimulate blood flow and encourage hair growth.  Martha used her own floor length, glossy brown hair to market her salon. She focused on the comfort of her clients, while providing individual consultations.

Unlike most of the personal care products available at that time, Martha’s hair and skin products used only natural ingredients, not harsh chemicals.

Born out of her focus on her customers’ comfort, Harper designed the first reclining shampoo chair, as well as the cut-out sink; both of her inventions went on to become staples in the salon industry that are still used today. It is interesting that Harper never patented these two inventions, but did patent the Moscana Tonique hair formula. 

"The great achievement of the Harper Method is the women it has made.” - Martha Matilda Harper

Harper began franchising her salons, specifically seeking women to become franchisees, especially former servants, and thus improved their quality of life. 

She offered a flexible financing plan which enabled hundreds of women to become Harper Salon owners, and thus entrepreneurs during an era when women had very limited rights. She created a franchising system and built a model that included what we now refer to as centralized management, quality control, and independent operators.

Thousands of women were trained in the Harper Method to work in the vast network of salons. Martha Matilda Harper truly changed lives.

At the height of Harper’s business success there were more than 500 Harper salons world-wide. Her clientele included celebrities, politicians, royalty, men and women. When her Rochester benefactor, Luella Roberts, lost her wealth, Martha -- her former servant -- purchased Roberts' home so that Luella would not be displaced. 

In October 1920, at age 63, Harper married Robert McBain, a man 24 years her junior. From 1888 until 1921, Martha owned and solely managed her business enterprise. However, in 1921, she established a business partnership with her husband. At the time of her death in 1950, her salons had dwindled to slightly more than 300, but her reputation as a businesswoman and beauty expert remained strong.

In 2000, entrepreneur and scholar Jane R. Plitt wrote a book about Harper titled “Martha Matilda Harper and The American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business”. In it, Plitt writes “She built a worldwide business empire, brick by brick, woman by woman.”

Watch video:
Interview with author Jane R. Plitt
("Celebrating Martha Matilda Harper")

In 2003, Harper was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the American Business Hall of Fame for her business achievements. She helped other servants live the American dream by hiring them as salon staff and enabling them to become successful franchisees. Harper is widely acknowledged as a model for female beauty industry entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Estee Lauder.

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Martha matilda harper's
 10 Commandments of Business Success

"Be equal to any problem that arises. Never give up.” – Martha Matilda Harper

Born in Ontario, Canada to parents Robert and Beady Harper, Martha began life with limited prospects in an era where a female had little to no free will over their own lives, both personally and professionally; decisions were largely made by the dominant male in their life (fathers, husbands, brothers, etc.). Her father yearned for wealth and success but was lazy and irresponsible. At age seven, Martha was severed from her mother and three siblings when her father forced her to work as a servant in her uncle Gifford’s household nearly 60 miles away to help meet his debts. Robert eventually deployed all his children into servitude for this purpose. 

Gifford was Martha’s mother’s brother, a hardworking farmer who was as energetic and focused as Martha’s father was lazy and irresponsible. As a servant, she served Gifford, his wife, and her two aunts doing all manner of household chores in return for room and board and paltry wages. Every cent she earned was sent back to her father to help support her family.

Around the age of 12, Martha went to work as a housekeeper for a doctor who was acquainted with Gifford. Although the doctor’s name is not known for certain, noted Harper biographer Jane R. Plitt (Martha Matilda Harper and The American Dream) surmises that it was likely Dr. Weston Leroy Hermann. While the doctor’s name is not entirely confirmed, it was under her employer’s generous tutelage that Martha learned about the science of hair care, including proper scalp hygiene, the appropriate cleansing and water temperature, the importance of brushing, etc. Throughout her years with him, Martha used the doctor’s hair tonic on her own thick mane of hair, which she grew to floor length, and which became synonymous with her name and her future enterprise.

Martha worked for this doctor for 12 years. When she left his employment, he gave her the formula for the hair tonic that would change her life, as well as the lives of thousands of women entrepreneurs around the world.

Around this same time in 1882, now aged 25, Martha sailed across Lake Ontario from Canada to Rochester, NY, a bustling, progressive city of about 90,000 people, in search of a new life in a land of opportunity. Determined to improve her life and equipped with a hair tonic formula and knowledge she gained from her mentor/employer, she had nothing to lose.

Arriving in Rochester, Martha once again found domestic work, first for an attorney, and then for a wealthy socialite named Luella J. Roberts. During this era, haircare for women was done entirely in the privacy of one’s own home and performed by servants. Martha’s expertise with scalp massages and haircare was admired by Luella’s friends, and soon Rochester’s society women were coming to Roberts’ home to have their hair tended by Martha.

In 1888, Martha invested her life savings (less than $400) to open her first hair salon where customers experienced The Harper Method – a two-hour process that included shoulder and head massages to promote hair growth and stimulate the flow of blood. With her long, healthy hair, Martha was a walking advertisement for her business and a testament to the success of her haircare tonic and application methods. Business in her single, three-chair salon was brisk thanks to her focus on customer comfort and service.

Born out of her focus on her customers’ comfort, Harper designed the first reclining shampoo chair, as well as the cut-out sink; both of her inventions went on to become staples in the salon industry that are still used today.   

“Be equal to any problem that arises. Never give up.” - Martha Matilda Harper

Her Harper Salons business concept of a public hair parlor for women was unheard of in the Victorian Age when haircare was done in the privacy of one’s own home.

When out-of-town women experienced the Harper Method at Martha’s sole salon in Rochester, NY, they wanted Harper shops in their communities. By coming up with a business model that today we know of as business format franchising, Martha simultaneously pioneered the concept of social franchising since she would only allow women to own Harper franchises who came from a similar background as her: low income servants and housemaids who had the ambition and discipline to run a business but lacked the financial means to do so.

Though Harper received requests to open salons in other cities, it’s been said that she refused to expand until a certain number of women in that community signed a petition promising to patronize the shop.

These “Harperites” were put through intense training where they were taught “The Harper Method” to ensure consistent quality of care and uniformity in Harper's procedures.

To own her own franchise, a Harperite would pay a fee (paid back as a loan over time), and agree to only stock Harper products, including the reclining salon sink chair and cut out/notched salon sink that Harper is credited with inventing, two items ubiquitous in today’s salons.

In 1891, Harper was ready to launch a second location for her salon - considered to be the first retail franchise in the US — in Buffalo, New York. Locations in Detroit, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Baltimore soon followed, each run by a Harperite.

By 1905, Harper Salons had expanded to Toronto, Canada. More Harper shops continued to be opened abroad to service the needs of traveling patrons, with celebrities and royalty among loyal Harper clients.

A key factor in the success of Harper’s franchise model, aside from the rigorous training program each Harperite underwent, was the demonstrated personal support of Martha herself to her operators. There are hundreds of stories by Harperites documenting how responsive Martha was in coming to their rescue when facing financial hardship or when their shops were destroyed by fire, earthquake, or other natural or man-made disasters.

Harper’s franchise business model was successful and scalable. By 1914, Harper had opened 134 franchises in 128 cities across the US, Canada, and throughout Europe.

In addition to focusing on the production of her natural shampoos and hair tonic, her salon franchise continued to grow both at home and internationally. 1920-1921 saw aggressive expansion from 175 shops to 350 shops in the span of one year. During this time, Harper Salons expanded their services to include men, and Harper hair products were also available in department stores.

During the Depression, while other businesses were reducing the prices of their products and services, Martha maintained her premium price points, and her shops stayed focus on offering exceptional quality and customer service. 

At the height of their success, the Harper salons numbered more than 500 globally, along with a chain of training schools.

In 1920, Harper married Robert McBain, a man 24 years her junior. They ran the business together for 15 years, until Harper retired at age 78 and passed control to him.  Under his leadership, the practices that Martha had put into place began to change, making Harper products less distinctive and the company overall shifted into a different business strategy.

By the time Harper died in 1950, her salons had dwindled somewhat in number, but her reputation as a beauty expert and as a businesswoman remained strong. Robert McBain (1882-1965) sold the company in the mid-1950s.

“The great achievement of the Harper Method is the women it has made.” - Martha Matilda Harper

The Concept of Franchising (and Social Franchising)

Harper created and launched the first business format franchise business model 60 years before Ray Kroc franchised McDonalds. In addition, given her focus on hiring and training female servants to work in her shop, as well as to become franchisees, it can be said that Harper also created and launched the concept of “social franchising”. Social franchising is the application of the business format franchising model to address societal issues such as joblessness, drug use, poverty, disease, sanitation, access to potable water, lack of education, etc. The franchised Harper Shops were a significant business innovation that improved the lives and livelihood of poor women. Hundreds of women became owners by purchasing a Harper Salon through the flexible financing she offered, and thousands of women received formal training and job opportunities as salon employees in the vast network of Harper shops globally.

Inventor

Born out of her focus on her customers’ comfort, Harper designed the first reclining shampoo chair, as well as the cut-out sink; both of her inventions went on to become staples in the salon industry that are still used today. Although she never filed a patent, she is widely credited as the inventor. Interestingly, she did patent the Moscano Tonique hair formula.

Beauty Industry Pioneer & Humanitarian

In 2003, Harper was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the American Business Hall of Fame for her business achievements. She helped other poor women and servants live the American dream by hiring them as salon staff and enabling them to become successful franchisees. She is widely acknowledged as a model for female beauty industry entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Estee Lauder.

 Book

Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business by Jane R. Plitt  (Hardcover published 2000; Paperback published 2019)

Downloads

  • Martha’s 10 Commandments for Business Success
  • Martha Matilda Harper Collection at the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC): RMSC maintains the Martha Matilda Harper Collection, a vast and interesting collection of artifacts related to her life and enterprise.

Access RMSC's “finding aid” here to view the list of items in the Martha Matilda Harper collection 

Videos

2019: WROC-TV: Celebrating Martha Matilda Harper (duration: 3 min. 39 sec.) 

2017: Rochester Museum & Science Center: Homework Hotline: Martha Matilda Harper (duration: 3 min. 56 sec)

2017: Rochester NY Suffragist: Martha Matilda Harper  (duration: 32 sec)

Websites/Blogs/Online Articles