Martha Matilda Harper (September 10, 1857, Oakville, Ontario – August 3, 1950, Rochester, New York) was a Canadian-American businesswoman, entrepreneur, and inventor who built an international network of franchised hair salons that emphasized healthy hair care. Born in Canada, Harper was sent away by her father when she was seven to work as a domestic servant. She worked in that profession for 25 years before she saved enough money to start working full-time producing a hair tonic she invented. The product, and the creation of special hair salons that utilized it, was successful. Harper began franchising the salon model to low-income women, and by its peak the company included more than 500 franchises and an entire line of hair care products.
Martha Matilda Harper was born in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Robert and Beadie Harper. She didn't receive a lot of formal education as a child. Harper's father sent her away at age seven to become a domestic servant for relatives in Orno, Ontario. She worked in that profession for 22 years before moving to the United States to work as a servant in Rochester, New York. Her last Canadian employer, a physician, imparted his knowledge of hair health to her, and bequeathed her his hair tonic formula when he died. She learned to respect scientific principles from the physician which benefitted her while making the hair tonic. While a servant, Harper developed her own hair tonic after becoming concerned that the hair products on the market did more harm than good. She saved enough money to begin producing the hair tonic full-time, and, upon leaving domestic service three years after her immigration to the United States, opened the first public hair salon in the region in order to help market it. Her salon opened in 1888 in Rochester using her life savings of $360.
Harper's salon the Harper Hair Parlour, and many of her innovations, including the Harper Method, underlie the modern concept of the hair salon. Before Harper, hairdressers used to make home visits. She used her hair tonic on herself to advertise. Her floor-length hair also served as an effective marketing tool and appeared in many advertisements for her products. She hired former servants to staff her salon. In 1891, she became the first in America to start modern retail franchising, allowing franchisees to open salons under the Harper name. Each salon was owned by a woman; Harper trained the franchisees and inspect their salons to ensure quality. Her first franchise was in Buffalo, New York.
Emphasizing customer service and comfort, Harper invented reclining shampoo chairs, which became a common feature of salons worldwide. The salons offered scalp massage and child care, and they provided evening hours. The hair products her company produced were intended to be healthier than those widely available at the time and were made largely with natural products. Harper salons did not carry synthetic dyes or do chemical perms.
At the height of its success, her company had 500 franchises and produced a full line of hair care and beauty products. Among the Harper customers were Susan B. Anthony, Woodrow Wilson, Grace Coolidge, Joseph P. Kennedy, Rose Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Ladybird Johnson.
The Harper Method Inc. has operated under a variety of different owners. In June 1956, Robert McBain, Harper's husband, sold the enterprise to Earl Freese and Gerald Wunderlich who then made three different attempts to sell the business throughout the 1960s and 70s.
In 1971, Robert Prentices, then manager of the Harper manufacturing centre in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, purchased the factory assets along with Harper manufacturing and distribution rights, renaming the company Niagara Mist Marketing Ltd, also known as the Soap Factory.
On March 10, 1972, other Harper Method Inc., assets were bought by PEJ Beauty Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Wilfred Academy. At the time, PEJ was one of the largest operators of trade schools in America. According to Philip Jakeway, then President of the Wilfred Academy, he hoped to expand his operation by marketing the Harper products and shops. An agreement was reached whereby Prentice would supply Harper products to Jakeway for U.S. distribution. Jakeway was unsuccessful."
The Harper Method Founder's Shop operated in Rochester, New York, as the country’s oldest, and longest-running, beauty shop until the early 2000s. It was the last Harper shop to remain open.
Death and legacy
Martha died on August 3, 1950, one month short of her 93rd birthday, survived by her husband Robert MacBain, who later died on April 30, 1965, at the age of 83. At time of her death there were over 350 shops. Her gravesite is at Riverside Cemetery, Rochester, New York.
Aside from business affairs, Harper also liked cooking, travel, and golf.
She was a member of the Rochester Country Club and Oak Hill Country Club. She also studied at the University of Rochester for a few classes.
In 2003, Harper was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame for her achievements in business. She is considered remarkable for helping other servants live the American dream by hiring them as staff and allowing them to become franchisees.
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