Woman of the Day: Martha Matilda Harper

Growing up, I remember learning of the accomplishments of many people in US and world history. Invariably, those people were men. Very rarely were women discussed. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that the accomplishments of women have long been minimized or ignored.  This is another way that sexism has played out in society. Denying the accomplishments of women is an insult. It treats them as if they’re unimportant…as if they haven’t contributed significantly to events throughout human history. In this ongoing series, I’ll be highlighting notable women, historically important women, and those women who ought to be more well-known.  My intent is to show that women have contributed to the course of human history and ought to be recognized, rather than ignored or overlooked. Born in Oakville, Ontario, Canada in 1857, Martha Matilda Harper would go on to change the way the world does business. In doing so, she affirmed the right of all women to control their own destinies.

As a young woman, Harper was bound as a domestic servant (by her father) to a minister in Rochester, NY. She developed an interest in hair care and, during her free time, developed her own shampoo.  By 1888, Harper had saved enough money to open her own beauty parlor, called the Harper Method Shop.

Harper’s own hair was so long it nearly reached the ground and she used it as a marketing tool for her product.  Her beauty method not only included organic shampoo, but she also advocated for good hygiene, nutrition, and exercise.

Harper invented the first reclining shampoo chair.  She is the one who also initiated the concept of a professional salon.  Prior to her salons, hairdressers visited customers at their homes.

As the demand for her products and services quickly rose, Harper decided to open a franchise parlor in Buffalo, New York, in 1891.  The following year, she opened another one in Chicago.  Harper’s franchise was the first of its kind; she trained women to open their own businesses under the name Harper Method.  At the height of its success, there were over 500 Harper salons in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe.

As Harper’s business grew, she added new products to her line, such as creams, cosmetics, and other hair products.  She also developed hair coloring products and permanent wave formulas.  All of her products were organic and marketed with the Harper Method trademark.  Harper also established beauty training school in cities like Rochester, NY; Atlanta, GA; Madison, WI; and Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Harper’s business was not only the first of its kind in the nation, complete with a trademark and franchises, but also she provided numerous women with business opportunities at a time when most of the jobs women could obtain were as domestic servants, factory workers, and teachers.  At her training schools, women learned how to run their own parlors, under Harper’s trademark, and become business owners.  Woman’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony was a client of Harper’s and used Harper as an example in her lectures of what women were capable of achieving in the business world.

Some of Harper’s other clients included Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, First Ladies Grace Coolidge and Eleanor Roosevelt and actress Helen Hayes.

Sally Parker, of the Rochester Review, writes:

Harper was the first to coax wealthy women out of their homes to have their hair done–no small feat during the Victorian era. Her salons were all about customer comfort: private, serene surroundings; professional attendants trained in scientific methods; all-natural beauty products that would be at home in today’s trendiest salons. She even invented the salon recliner chair with neck support in the sink (but failed to patent it).

Further, when she sought to expand her business from her original solo shop, Harper invented–more than half a century before Ray Kroc launched McDonald’s–a franchise system of satellite operations that duplicated in every respect her original shop, products, and training.

Where Harper differed from Kroc was in ownership and staffing. Completely turning on its head the custom of the times, every Harper satellite was owned and operated by a woman, and further, a woman drawn from Harper’s own working class background. (She was, in addition to everything else, possessed of a strong social conscience backed by a powerful sense of sisterhood.)

Writes Plitt: “Each Harper shop was a refuge: immaculate, orderly, full only of Harper products, and offering extraordinary and painstaking service. . . . Martha’s salons became havens for refreshment, since Harper shampoos included a head and shoulder massage to stimulate blood flow.” Facials, she notes, also were offered. And Martha instructed her salon operators “that they themselves had to be ‘peaceful and happy’ in order to induce similar feelings in their customers.”

Harper’s focus on pampering the customer became the industry standard. Harper Method graduates, trained in the company’s popular schools, were eagerly sought by her competitors. “You always wanted to hire a Harper trainee,” Plitt says, “because they learned the scientific methods and applications, as well as customer focus.”

At its apex in the early 1930s, the Rochester-based Harper network could boast more than 500 salons in cities around the globe. Seventy years later Martha Matilda Harper is virtually forgotten, her memory kept alive only by the last two surviving salons.

Her achievement, Plitt says, slipped through the cracks of history because she was a woman who succeeded in a man’s world, and did it on her own, feminist terms.

“It struck me that allowing Martha Matilda Harper’s story to vanish was a metaphor for how undervalued women’s lives have been in our society,” Plitt says.

That is very much a perfect metaphor.

Woman of the Day: Martha Matilda Harper