Known for her trademark floor-length hair, it should come as no surprise that franchise entrepreneur Martha Matilda Harper made her career in the women’s salon industry. Born in 1857 in Oakville, Ontario and set for a life in servitude, Harper’s journey to the hair and beauty business was unpredictable and unlikely for the time.
However, it was during her time working as a servant in Ontario and eventually in Rochester, New York that Harper developed a product that would transform the hair industry and forever change women’s perception of beauty.
Intrigued by the idea of chemical-free hair products, she used her spare time experimenting with various recipes until she created an organic shampoo. With her business intuition intact, Harper knew she had a product that would sell, and used her entrepreneurial skills to create one of the first franchise systems in North America.
It all began in 1888, when Harper rented office space in Rochester that she used as a women’s beauty parlor and a mini-factory to produce her shampoo – an innovative concept for the late 1800s. She coined her salon/manufacturing office the “Harper Method Shop.”
Over the next three years, the salon became a popular destination for women in the city, and as Harper witnessed her products’ growth she sought to expand her business model. In 1891, she opened her first two franchises in Buffalo and Detroit, with a third location opening in Chicago in 1893.
Despite spanning across three different States, Harper remained present in the lives of her franchisees. She awarded her new franchise locations to poor women, training them on how to successfully run their own salons under the “Harper Method.” Known as “Harperites,” these franchisees would carry on Harper’s innovative business concept as she continued to franchise across the United States.
With her keen business eye, it was hard to slow down Harper’s entrepreneurial aspirations. As more salons popped up, she developed inventive products that would add value to her salon empire, including the first reclining salon chair to more efficiently shampoo hair.
For the remainder of her career, Harper franchised 500 “Harper Method Shop” locations throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and South America. Though Harper’s salons were created with the average woman in mind, her ground-breaking hair solutions brought in famous clients as well, including Jackie Kennedy, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and President’s Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge.
In 1950, Harper passed away at the age of 93, but her contributions to the franchising industry, and women’s role in it, have had long-lasting effects. In 2003, Harper was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and is recognized today as a pioneer of modern franchising in North America.
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