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Jane Introduces: Martha Matilda Harper

Jane would like to transport you back to the 19th century for a moment. Imagine the world through the eyes of a little girl of seven. A child born into poverty, trapped by Fate in a home dominated by class (lower class in her case), a strictly patriarchal viewpoint, and more siblings than food. Imagine being "bound out" to relatives in a state of servitude, in order to allow your father to hold onto land he could not afford, in the first place.

Look out on a world that cared little for your comfort or your feelings. A world that dictated your mother do as her husband bid, without a word, sending her poor seven year old away to serve relatives far from the meager homestead the child knew. Imagine the hardship and despair this child must have endured.

Now, Jane would like you to come forward, to the 20th century, to a world that has grown in commerce and stature. A world that bustles with opportunity. The seven year old girl has grown up. She is still in servitude, but she sees a way out now. At the age of 35, she takes on Fate and decides to manage her own life, to lift herself out of the lower class, to serve a higher class of clientele in a shop...a salon...a place of business the world tried to tell her she had no right to have. Imagine this strong woman, determined to make her mark in the world -- but never forget that her roots were still tugging at her ankles, trying to pull her back to that bare home she left at the age of seven.

This is the story of cover Martha Matilda Harper, the inventor of the franchising industry, as we know it in America today. Jane R. Plitt's biography of Martha shows a woman of intelligence, strength of character, and vision. Martha Matilda Harper is a forgotten entity today. The world has not given her credit for her great accomplishments, except in small books such as the biography by Ms. Plitt (Syracuse University Press, 2000)

She is not revered for introducing the concept that "customer service" is the best and most successful way of promoting a business. She is not credited with building a franchising business in the world of beauty; a world that competed with the likes of Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. She is, most often, an object of discussion for her long, flowing, rich mane of hair that cascaded to the floor. It was her hair and the importance she gave to its beauty and richness that was her entry into the world of the beauty business, a world that was growing like wildfire in the early 20th century.

Martha opened the first beauty shop in the famous Powers Building (although it took her many meetings with Daniel Powers before he relented and 'allowed' a woman to have a 'beauty salon' in his building) on Main Street, in the business district of downtown Rochester, NY. The date was August 21, 1888. She signed an agreement to pay her rent monthly, as Mr. Powers did not expect her beauty shop to last very long and did not want any hassle when he would need to ask her to leave. She continued to pay rent on a monthly basis for fifty years, despite Daniel Powers' request, when he saw how successful she was in attracting the 'right' kind of clientele (think upscale, society ladies), that she sign a long-term lease.

Martha Matilda Harper should be an inspiration to women everywhere. Her story is worth reading no matter what gender you happen to be. If you have aspirations of business success, this book will convince you that you can do it! You can succeed! The only obstacle in your path is your own doubt.

Many of Martha's 'girls' came from servitude, as she had, but they operated their businesses using the Harper method, even buying equipment from Martha and attending a training school she set up, to better learn how to serve their customers.

At the age of 63, Martha got married, for the first time, to a man 24 years her junior. Robert Morris took control of the business, managing Harper Beauty Salons all over the U.S. and in Europe. When Martha passed away in 1950, Plitt notes that obituaries neglected to credit Martha with "creating the first American business format (retail) franchise in the United States." That she changed lives and gave other women opportunities they would never have been offered, is undisputable. That she used determination and bold demeanor to prosper in a world controlled by men, is undisputable. That she was a woman ahead of her time, has been lost to history. Except for Jane R. Plitt, and a few others, Martha Matilda Harper would endure as a pretty girl with long hair, who opened the first beauty shop in a growing city between New York and Canada.
Mmharper2

Martha Matilda Harper -- entrepreneur, businesswoman extraordinaire, friend to Susan B. Anthony, the Rockefellers, royalty, president's wives, and most of all, to her girls, the young women she opened doors for; young women who used the Harper method to build businesses of their own, to embrace independence, to gain control over their lives.

What's not to like about that?

Comments

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Pat Vaughn

Great story. Makes me wonder - salons could make
a fortune catering to clients with hair like
Martha Harper. Why don't they encourage customers
to grow super long hair? Surely there is great
potential there.

Evelyn Rodriguez

This is a great story - I'd never heard of Martha Harper - until now. Thank you for sharing.

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