Martha Matilda Harper defied social roadblocks and gender norms to build a successful chain of hair salons. More than a century later, she’s still largely unknown to the general public.
By: Zachary Crockett | @zzcrockettJune 28, 2020
Ray Kroc is often credited as the “father” of the franchising business model.
But 60 years before McDonald’s, a woman named Martha Matilda Harper built her own formidable franchise of hair salons — the first of its kind in the US — and trained hundreds of underprivileged women to run their own businesses.
Harper not only pioneered franchising but is widely credited a trailblazer of the modern hair salon industry, which is now a $20B market. An ex-servant who escaped poverty, she built an empire of 500 salons all over the world. And she did it all during a time when women were largely silenced in their entrepreneurial pursuits.
Despite these accomplishments, most people have never heard of her.
Born into servitude
Born on September 10, 1857, in a small village in Ontario, Canada, Marth Matilda Harper began life with bleak prospects.
She was the 4th of 10 children — all of whom shared a one-room log cabin — and her father, a tailor by trade, was (in her later words) a “stern, unflinching English pioneer too preoccupied with his daily struggle to pay much heed to [her].”
Eventually, he pivoted his business to “renting out” his children for labor.
At the age of 7, Harper was sent off to be a house servant for a wealthy Ontario farm owner. In exchange for a grueling regimen of cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the farm, she was paid around $4 per month (about $130 today). Every penny went back to her father.
Martha Matilda Harper as a child in Ontario, Canada (Rochester Museum and Science Center)
Five years later, Harper was transferred to the home of a nearby physician, who was looking for household help in the wake of his wife’s death.
Though the doctor’s identity was never recorded, Harper’s biographer, Jane Plitt, suggests it was Dr. Weston Leroy Herriman, an ex-Civil War medic who ran a practice in what is now the Canadian town of Port Hope.
Herriman had a special interest in the physiology of hair.
At the time, the North American hair care regimen was minimal. Men and women only infrequently washed their hair. Hot water and crude soap (made of hog fat and ashes) were in short supply, and commercial shampoos were a distant invention.
But Herriman had spent time studying things like scalp hygiene and the effects of hair brushing. Over the next decade, he often shared his knowledge with Harper, who was eager to learn.
When he died in 1879, he gave Harper something that would later change her life: a recipe for a hair tonic made of natural herbs.
Newly bestowed with this gift, and with a small amount of savings to her name, the 25-year-old Harper boarded a ship to Rochester, New York, in search of a fresh start.
The rumblings of an empire
In Rochester, Harper saw promise in the bustling economy and progressive culture.
Once again, she found work as a servant — first for a local attorney, then for a wealthy woman named Luella J. Roberts.
In the late 19th century, haircare was done in the home, usually by a servant. Harper assumed the role of Ms. Roberts’ personal beautician, doling out scalp massages and hair dressings. She was so skilled that the high-society women of Rochester were soon visiting the house for their own treatments.
The main street of Rochester, New York, in the 1880s (via the NYGenWeb Project)
During the little time she had between these duties, Harper began producing her own iteration of hair tonic in a shed in Ms. Roberts’ backyard.
Harper ran small market tests with women in the neighborhood and handed the tonic out door-to-door. It was received astonishingly well — and she began to sense a business opportunity.
Despite being at the center of a burgeoning women’s suffrage movement led by Susan B. Anthony, Rochester’s entrepreneurial landscape was still controlled almost entirely by men. Victorian mores dictated that a woman’s place was in the home. A leading psychologist at the time equated the free will of a woman to the “symptom of a disease.”
Harper knew that the odds were stacked against her. But she had a vision, a niche specialty, and positive market reception.
So, in 1888, at the age of 31, she invested her life savings — $360 ($9.7k in 2020 dollars) — into her first Harper Hairdressing Parlor.
Harper set her sights on the Powers Building, a nine-story structure that housed some of the finest businesses in Rochester. At first, her application was denied. But with the help of a local attorney, she was granted a month-to-month lease.
The salon was designed with a luxurious feel and built on the virtue of health and purity.
Customers would be treated to the “Harper Method” — an elaborate 2-hour process involving head and shoulder massages, facials, and procedures with names like “saddle maneuver,” “strapping action,” and “checking motion” that were purported to stimulate blood flow and promote hair growth.
To market these services, Harper used images of her own enviable head of hair — a chestnut mane so long that PT Barnum once tried to recruit her to the circus.
Harper would later use her legendary mane of hair as a marketing tool to drum up business for her salon (Rochester Museum and Science Center)
In the beginning, business was slow. Her high-end clientele — still insistent on home visits — were opposed to the idea of going to a public salon. As a trailblazer of the modern salon, Harper realized she’d have to change the behavior of her customers.
Soon, she got a break.
When a music teacher next door to her business mentioned he had no waiting room, Harper offered up her salon. Women began to wander in to get hair treatments while waiting for their children to finish their piano lessons.
At a time when customer service was still something of a foreign concept, Harper reinvested profits in enriching her clients’ experience, inventing the first reclining shampoo chair and a special sink with a unique cut-out for the neck.
Word of this exotic new salon concept spread among Rochester’s elite. In short order, the 3-chair shop was bustling with prominent women from other cities, too.
A pioneer of franchising
Though Harper received requests to open up salons in other cities, she refused to expand until a certain number of women in that community signed a petition. A shrewd operator, she was keenly aware of market testing.
Harper knew that she had to maintain strict control over her brand and the quality of her service. She also knew she had to find operators she could trust.
She set out to hire women who came from a similar background as her: lower-class servants and housemaids who had the ambition and discipline to run a business but lacked the capital.
These “Harperites” were put through intense training to ensure uniformity and created a school where they were taught the Harper methods.
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 — brushes, tonics, chairs, sinks. Harper chose each location and controlled signage and advertisements.
Top: A customer gets a Harper Method facil; bottom: A gathering of Haperites in the 1920s (Rochester Museum and Science Center)
In 1891, Harper launched a second location — considered to be the first retail franchise in the US — in Buffalo, New York. Locations in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Baltimore soon followed, each run by a Harperite.
The business model was so successful and scalable that by 1914, Harper had opened 134 franchises in 128 cities across the US, Canada, and Europe. It was enough to earn Harper a spot as the only female member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce. “[Harper] is one of the most fascinating stories anywhere in the modern business world,” wrote a Canadian newspaper that year.
Harper, by then a wealthy woman, even bailed out the woman she once served: When Ms. Roberts ran into financial problems, her ex-servant put up $1.5k to save her estate.
In 1920, at age 63, Harper married Robert A. MacBain, a 39-year-old army colonel. With her companion, she set her sights even higher.
The cultural revolution of the 1920s brought with it a tremendous shift in the beauty industry. Flappers suddenly favored makeup, lipstick, and new inventions like the curling iron and hair dyes. Through it all, Harper maintained a focus on natural products.
She doubled down on the production of her tonic and natural shampoos, expanding from 175 shops to 350 shops in the span of one year (1920-1921). She expanded her services to men and introduced her products to department stores.
During the Depression, and an age of massive discounting, she stuck with her premium prices and kept the focus on exceptional quality and customer service.
“Being satisfied with things the way they are is a sure sign of decline,” she wrote. “Constructive discontent is, to me, a higher faculty of mind.”
A forgotten legacy
In the early 1930s, Harper began to cede to old age and dementia.
She stepped down as president and passed the reins to her husband, who, by Plitt’s account, “overcommercialized” the business with products.
Harper late in life (Rochester Museum and Science Center)
By the time she passed away in 1950, at the age of 93, Harper had grown her business into a 500-salon empire. She’d served an astonishing roster of American legends — Woodrow Wilson, Susan B. Anthony, Jacqueline Kennedy, Vanderbilts, Fords, Hearts, DuPonts. She’d amassed an estate worth $750k ($11m).
Her obituary in The New York Times heralded her as a “one of the pioneers in the beauty business.”
But the celebration of her legacy didn’t last long.
With her absence, the company lost relevance. In 1956, her husband sold the ailing business. Ownership bounced around in the following years until an ex-Harper chemist bought it in 1972.
Today, a tire shop occupies her old factory in Rochester. And her old home — 863 Culver Road — is now flanked by a McDonald’s.
Note: Much of the information in this article came from Jane Plitt’s excellent biography, Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream. Without her dogged research, much of Harper’s story might’ve been lost to time. We highly recommend giving it a read.
Nathan Justice manages community outreach programs and forums that help many senior citizens. He completed a counseling program at the University of Maryland’s Department of Psychology.