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Canadian-born American entrepreneur, Martha Matilda Harper (1857-1950), was in a work placement as a child.

Martha Matilda Harper was born the fourth child of Beady Gifford Harper and Robert Harper, a tailor, in a village on the outskirts of Oakville, Ontario. At the age of seven, when her father was facing a significant financial crisis, Martha was sent away to live with John Gifford, Beady’s brother, where she became a servant.

John Gifford lived in Leskard, a village more than sixty miles or ninety-six kilometres from Martha’s home, with his wife, Elsie Maria and two of Martha’s aunts, Ruby Ann and Ranni. Martha was expected to earn her way by serving the family and she did this from early morning until sunset for pay that covered her board and a financial contribution she sent to her family back home.

Around twelve years of age, Martha was sent to live and work for a local doctor. From the doctor, Martha began to learn about scalp hygiene, the benefits of hair brushing to the scalp, and anatomy, particularly as it affected hair growth. He recommended a hair tonic he had developed from herbs.

In 1882, when she was twenty-five, Harper relocated to Rochester, New York. She worked initially for the Hovey’s but when they sold their residence, Harper was “part of the real estate” (Plitt, 30). Her new employers, Luella and Owen Roberts, both of whom had been orphaned, became a family for Martha as she was expected to not only complete mundane household tasks, but also to meet their emotional needs,

One of Martha’s tasks was to care for Luella’s hair and it wasn’t long before friends of the Roberts were also requesting Martha’s attention to their hair.

At a time when servants cared for their mistresses’ hair, or hairdressers came to the house, Martha decided to set up in business in a shop. She continued caring for the Roberts as well as preparing her business which included making up a hair tonic.  With support from prominent women’s suffrage activist, Susan B. Anthony, lawyer and politician John Van Voorhis, and her employers, in August 1888, Martha was ready.  She invested her life savings of $360 to open the Harper Hairdressing Parlor, renting space in the Powers Building, an office building in Monroe County owned by Daniel Powers who was orphaned as a child but went on to become a wealthy banker.

To attract customers, Martha had photos taken of herself with her floor length luxurious hair and, having been a servant and, therefore, well versed in the ways of upper-class women, she set out to give them a sumptuous experience. She refused women’s requests to come to their homes and when Daniel Power realised that the Harper Shop was a success, he offered a long-term lease (which she refused but remained in the building for 50 years). As her business grew and Harper began hiring, she made it a point to recruit former servants.

Martha continued to live with the Roberts, primarily to protect Luella in the evenings from Owen’s bouts of drunken rages. As Harper’s fortunes grew, Owen Roberts’ declined, and Harper ended up financially supporting the Roberts too.

To make up for the short fall in her education, Martha hired tutors to give her a broad education and then attended night classes at the University of Rochester, close to the Roberts’ home.

Eventually women asked her to set up business in other cities. Influenced by the model used by religious entrepreneur, Mary Baker Eddy, with her Christian Science church—which has a central “Mother” church in Boston and a federation of affiliated churches throughout the world all giving the same service on a Sunday—Martha Matilda Harper decided to duplicate her Harper Shop throughout the country.

Wherever customers went, they would find a Harper Hairdressing Salon and know what to expect. Her system assured a consistency of service because each operator and franchisee learned and performed the Method; her way was the only way (Plitt, 60).

Harper hired working classing women, primarily former domestic servants, to operate franchises. She chose locations for shops, provided products, training and advertising, and often the initial funding for women to get established (which they paid back). As women—or agents as Harper called them—ran their own businesses, Harper was able to significantly expand hers.

According to Jane Plitt, Martha Matilda Harper became the “mother of American retail franchising” (62) although her model did not become a dominant one until the second half of the 20th century.

[Harper’s] concept of retail franchising was not simply a brilliant business model, but a concrete means to offer membership and female consciousness to her working-class sisters. She was redefining her own destiny and that of thousands of other women (Plitt, xvi).

In 1920, Martha Matilda Harper married Robert McBain (1882-1965). Three years later she became an American citizen and by 1931 the couple were amongst the “Who’s Who” of Rochester.

Harper stepped aside to allow McBain to become President of her company in 1932. Some of his innovations, according to Jane Plitt, changed the Harper Method and it lost its distinctiveness. There was increased competition too, for example, from Max Factor who opened his first salon in 1936 and, during World War II, some Harper Shop owners began to care for clients in the clients’ homes.

At the time of her death in 1950, Martha Matilda Harper was famous as a pioneer in the American beauty industry. Her Harper Method franchise business continued to operate until 1972, although Robert McBain had sold it in 1956.

In July 2017 the City of Rochester honoured Martha Matilda Harper and other progressive women such as Susan B. Anthony with an exhibition that included a prototype of a salon chair designed by Harper.


Engelman, Elysa. “Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business.” Business history review, vol. 75 (2001): 205-207.

“Honoring Their Energy.” Rochester Business Journal, vol. 33 (2017): 17.

Martha Matilda Harper. How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business.

Plitt, Jane. Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream. Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Plitt, Jane. “How Martha Matilda Harper seized opportunity.” Rochester Beacon, 16 June 2021.

Parker, Sally. “Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream.” University of Rochester News and Facts, vol. 63 (2000).

“Women of History: Martha Matilda Harper”. The Mary Baker Eddy Library, 1 June 2020.

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