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.

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

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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). 

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.

 Armed with this natural herb tonic recipe, in 1879, Martha left Canada and sailed 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 Hairdressing 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’s used her own floor length, glossy chestnut hair to market her salon. She focused on the comfort of her clients, while providing individual consultations. She employed only former servant women. 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. 


Harper began franchising her salons, specifically seeking women to become franchisees and thus improve their quality of life. Through her flexible finance plan, hundreds of women became Harper Salon owners. 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.

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, businesswoman 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.”

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. She is widely acknowledged as a model for female beauty industry entrepreneurs such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Estee Lauder.

Download MMH’s 10 Commandments of Business Success: PDF