Martha Matilda Harper

MMHarper1Born September 10, 1857
Birthplace Oakville (Ontario), Canada
Died August 3, 1950
Grave Site Riverside Cemetery, Rochester, NY
Contribution Believed to have created the first business format franchising system in the United States.

Martha Matilda Harper, entrepreneur and beauty expert, was born in Oakville (Ontario), Canada on September 10, 1857/68. [Harper’s birth date has been recorded as being either in 1857 or 1868. She reportedly used the 1868 date to make herself seem younger, but swore in an affidavit that the correct date was 1857.] Her parents were Robert and Beadie (Gifford) Harper.

Harper received very little formal education as a girl. When she was six or seven years old, she was sent to work in the home of relatives who lived in Orno (Ontario), Canada. As a young woman, she emigrated to the United States to work as a domestic servant in the home of a minister in Rochester, New York.

Harper had brought a formula for hair tonic (shampoo) with her to the United States and began making it in a shed of the home in which she worked. By 1888, she had saved enough money to rent an office in Rochester. There, she opened her first Harper Method Shop, a combination beauty parlor and factory for producing the shampoo. An important early marketing tool for Harper was her own hair, so long that it reached almost to the ground.

MMHarper4Harper’s success soon allowed her to expand. In 1891, she opened a franchise in Buffalo, New York. Another shop was opened in Chicago’s Marshall Field department store in 1892. At the time of her death in 1950, there were over 350 shops in the United States, Canada, South America and Europe. Her customers included Susan B. Anthony and Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge.

Susan B. Anthony was not only a client of Harper’s, she also praised Harper often during her lectures, and used her as an example of what could be done by women in business. Harper in turn contributed to the memorialization of the Susan B. Anthony House in the 1940s.

In 1921, Harper opened a second “laboratory” in Rochester, and a third in Niagara Falls (Ontario), Canada. As her business grew and the concept of the function of the modern beauty parlor expanded, she added new products to her line, including other hair preparations, creams and makeup. Later, she was to add permanent wave and hair coloring products. All of these were marketed with the Harper Method trademark.

MMHarper3Harper also established beauty training schools in a number of cities, including Rochester, Atlanta (Georgia), Madison (Wisconsin) and Calgary (Alberta, Canada). Her philosophy included a belief that beauty was based in good health, and that every person was beautiful. Her products were all organic.

On October 27, 1920, Harper married Robert Arthur MacBain in New York City. From 1888 until 1921, she had owned and managed her business on her own; however, in 1921, she established a business partnership with McBain. This arrangement lasted four years. From 1925 until 1937, Harper ran her business as the President of Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. In the 1940s, a limited partnership agreement was formed with new leadership.MMHarper2

Harper was a member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce from 1910 to 1940, and is said to have been its first woman member. She also belonged to numerous trade organizations. She was affiliated with the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Rochester.

Harper enjoyed cooking, traveling and golfing, and was a member of the Rochester Country Club and Oak Hill Country Club. Harper also took classes from the University of Rochester.

Harper died on August 3, 1950 at her home in Rochester, New York.

Bibliography of Suggested Books & Articles

  • Herman, Kali, Women in Particular: An Index to American Women, Phoenix, AZ: Onyx Press, 1984.
  • Plitt, Jane R., Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
  • Plitt, Jane R., “The Remarkable Martha Matilda Harper,” typescript, c1999.
  • “Martha M. Harper, Pioneer Beautician,” obituary in the New York Times, Saturday, August 5, 1950, p. 15, col. 4.
  • The National Cyclopedia of American Biography…, NY: James J. White & Co., 1954. v. XXXIX, pp. 236-237. Biography of Martha Matilda Harper, includes full-page image.