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Martha Matilda Harper Servant Girl To Beauty Entrepreneur

Martha Matilda Harper (1857-1950) was bound into servitude at age seven after her father lost his money in a business venture. She worked for 25 years before she launched a beauty business. It became the first franchise system of 500 independently owned salons in the U.S. and Europe. Martha Matilda Harper went from servant girl to beauty entrepreneur.


Harper’s last Canadian employer was a holistic physician who taught her scientific principles and methods relating to hair care, including scalp hygiene and how to stimulate blood flow with vigorous brushing. When he died, he left her his formula for hair tonic.

Martha Matilda Harper Developed Her Own Beauty Regimen

Recognizing that chemicals in hair shampoo and other products often caused more harm than good, Harper continued refining the hair tonic.  She developed her own beauty regimen, even while she worked as a servant in America, now for a wealthy woman in Rochester, N.Y..

Harper Opened Her First Beauty Parlor

Harper finally saved enough money to begin producing her hair tonic full-time and  left domestic service.  She launched into a rigorous search for the perfect location for her business.
In 1888, (around the time Nellie Bly came to New York),  Harper used her life’s savings of $360 to open the first hair and skin care salon in the now-famous Powers Building in downtown Rochester, New York. Until then, hairdressers visited customers in their homes.
Following her instincts, Harper used her own floor-length hair as an advertisement for her “Harper Beauty Method,” which encompassed hygiene, nutrition, and exercise.

She Established Visionary Business Practices

After nearly twenty-five years of servitude, Harper knew how to pamper her customers. From day one, her business principles were nothing less than visionary, with an emphasis on customer service and comfort.
Early on, she designed America’s first reclining shampoo chair to ensure that her patrons did not get soap in their eyes. She created a relaxing atmosphere for mothers waiting for their children taking music lessons next door, an idea that later evolved into child care centers located within her shops. She offered evening hours to accommodate busy schedules.
The hair products her company produced were made largely with natural ingredients that were healthier than those widely available. Harper Salons did not carry synthetic dyes or do chemical perms, even though they were highly profitable.

Martha Matilda Harper Worked the Buzz

It was no surprise that Harper’s shop created a buzz among prominent women and suffragists alike. Susan B. Anthony encouraged women to rally around her shop. Harper enjoyed a who’s who list of clients including First Lady Grace Coolidge, Alexander Graham Bell’s wife and the civic leader Bertha Honoré Palmer.
It was Palmer who convinced Harper to expand into Chicago in time for the World’s Fair. Palmer delivered signatures from her friends committing that they would patronize a Chicago Harper shop in one of the first “KickStarter” campaigns. (Imagine, all of this without Instagram or Yelp.)
Later, Harper introduced scalp massages and special treatments for men. President Woodrow Wilson was believed to visit a Harper Salon in Paris when he was negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.

 The “Harper Method” Expands

In 1891 (shortly after Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly returned from their race around the world in eighty days), two franchises were created. One in Buffalo, New York, and the other in Detroit, Michigan. Palmer got her Chicago shop in 1893.
Harper created a network of salons with duplicated services and products. Each franchisee owned her own salon, but was carefully trained in the regimented “Harper Beauty Method.”. Harper inspected the franchised shops routinely. Only safe, organic products manufactured by her factories and her proven techniques were allowed.
She established schools for ongoing training in her  Harper Method.  Salon owners were givem benefits including group insurance and a supportive network of worldwide advertising campaigns, along with regular newsletters and annual get-togethers. (a.k.a. tweets, texts, e-mails and digital conferences).

The Harper Empire: 500 Salons Franchised

Eventually, Harper Method, Inc. became a worldwide operation. Harper had launched modern retail franchising, from a French word meaning “to free from servitude.” The first one hundred Harper Hair Parlors were earmarked for former servant girls or poor working-class women.

 Married Her Assistant

At sixty-three, with her empire finally secured, Harper married her assistant Robert MacBain, then thirty-nine. In 1932 she stepped aside and let him take over her business, which he ran until 1972.
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