Martha Matilda Harper was born into a working class family on September 10, 1857. At the age of seven her father bound her out into service as a domestic servant. Twenty five years later (1880) she left her lot as a servant and created the first franchise, a line of hair products, designed the first reclining shampoo chair and changed women’s lives forever.
Martha Harper began her career as an entrepreneur at the age of 32 with life savings of $360.00 and a special hair tonic formula bequeathed to her by her employer. Harper believed that the chemicals women used on their hair was causing damage. The Harper Method encompassed hygiene, nutrition, exercise and healthy all natural products. Harper used her her own floor-length hair as an advertisement for her beauty method. She began by manufacturing the hair tonic, and opened her first Harper Method Shop in Rochester, New York. This was the beginning of the concept of the professional “salon”. This was the first healthy skin and hair salon. Hairdressers had always visited their customers in their homes. It was the Victorian Era and it was thought that only prostitutes and lower-class women would publicly primp. Harper broke with this tradition and rejected requests to “dress” customers’ hair in their homes.
As The Harper Method Shop gained popularity, Harper hired young women who had been working as servants. Harper’s cornucopia logo reflected her slogan and mantra “Feed yourself. Free yourself.” Susan B. Anthony urged Harper to expand economic opportunities for women: “I hope that a constantly increasing number of women will earn their own living instead of marrying men with whom it is impossible to live.” The shop had become the fashionable place for ladies to bring their visiting friends. That is how Bertha Palmer, from the Chicago Palmer House discovered The Harper Method. Bertha was the chair of the 1893 World’s Fair Women’s Division and asked Harper to be part of the World’s Fair. Harper insisted that Bertha have 25 of her friends commit in writing to patronizing Harper’s shop.
Harper used the Christian Science Church as her expansion model. The Church had a strong main church with an uniformed training and instructional program with satellites. Her goal was to offer financial freedom to poor women. The word “franchise” comes from the French and means “to free from servitude.” All the women had to attend Harper classes, use only Harper products, and locate their shop in an area selected by Harper. This became the formula for the first franchise. By the 1920′s there were over 500 Harper Method Shops around the world, and a chain of training schools. Clientele included Woodrow Wilson, Susan B. Anthony, Calvin and Grace Coolidge, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Helen Hayes.
Martha Matilda Harper retired at 78 and died in 1950 at the age of 93. In 1972 the Harper Method assets were sold to PEJ Beauty Corporation, a subsidairy of the Wilfred Academy. The Harper Method Schools were closed. The Harper Method Shops continued to operate independently until the owners closed or died. The first Harper Method Shop in New York was the last to close.
Martha Matilda changed the lives of generations of women and created a new way of doing business.