Martha Matilda Harper (1857-1950 )


Inventor of the business concept franchising, Martha Matilda Harper was born in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, in 1857.  When she was a young woman, Harper’s father bound her out into service as a domestic servant in the home of a minister in Rochester, New York.   During her free time, she experimented with formulas and created one for organic hair shampoo; she felt that the chemicals in other shampoos were more harmful than good.  By 1888, Harper had saved enough money to rent an office in Rochester and she opened a combined beauty parlor and factory for producing shampoo.  She called it 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. 

In 1920, Harper married Robert Arthur MacBain.  When she retired in 1935, her husband, who was many years her junior, continued running the business.  Harper died in 1950, leaving behind the legacy of franchise businesses.

Additional Resources:


  • PBS:


  • Plitt, Jane.  Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed
    the Face of Modern Business. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Works Cited:

  • “Martha Matilda Harper,” Enterprising Women, n.d., (2 February 2006).
  • “Martha Matilda Harper, Retail Franchise Network,” Public Broadcasting System, n.d., (2 February 2006).
  • “Martha Matilda Harper,” Women’s Hall of Fame, 2003, (2 February 2006).