Driving down East Main Street recently, I spotted the name “Martha Matilda Harper” engraved on a building near the old Beech Nut packaging plant. My interest was piqued, since the building at 1233 East Main Street currently houses Tire Trax sales and service. It turns out that the facility is the former laboratories for Martha Matilda Harper, Inc.
I can’t believe that I’d never heard of Martha Matilda Harper, but we can thank her for just about everything having to do with our modern salon experiences, as well as her groundbreaking business methods that pioneered modern retail franchising…
Born in Ontario, Canada in 1857, Harper was sent out as a domestic servant at the ripe old age of seven. She eventually went on to work for a physician who had developed a tonic that stimulated hair growth. He taught Harper how to increase blood flow to the scalp with robust hair brushing and scalp hygiene (for example, using a fine comb to clear way obstructions from the hair follicles and a stiff brush to help stimulate the scalp). On his deathbed, he shared with Harper the secret formula for his hair tonic. She brought that formula with her to Rochester when she emigrated here in 1882 to take another job as a domestic servant.
Here’s an iconic image of Harper and her floor length, flowing hair…
She experimented with the tonic on her own hair, which cascaded in luxurious waves to the floor and became her trademark, and then started treating the hair of society women (friends of her employer). The women were hooked.
In 1888, using her lifetime savings of $360, Harper rented space in the Powers Building to open her first beauty shop. In 1889, she was still boarding at the same address on East Main St., but now the city directory listed her occupation as “hair tonic, and shampooing rooms, 517 Powers bldgs”.
With her proven hair tonic and a loyal clientele, Harper drew customers from far and wide to her Rochester beauty shop, including Susan B. Anthony, Mabel Graham Bell (wife of Alexander Graham Bell) and future First Lady Grace Coolidge. Socialite and philanthropist Bertha Honore Palmer, whose husband owned Chicago’s Palmer House hotel, traveled to experience the Harper Method firsthand and convinced Martha Matilda Harper to open a shop in Chicago in time for the World’s Fair. It would be the start of a female-empowering franchising revolution.
From her beauty headquarters in Rochester and with the goal of helping women achieve business success, Harper started training poor women in her methods of beauty treatment, which included facial and scalp massages, healthy approaches to skin and hair care, and creating a calm environment for customers.
She created incentives for shop owners to encourage fair compensation for workers. She required Harper beauty shops to use only her organic, chemical-free products and beauty methods (which included diet and exercise in the beauty routine) and to conform to her precise business practices.
She even created a reclining salon chair as a way to shampoo hair without getting soap suds in the client’s face – a design she unfortunately failed to patent…
SIDE NOTE: Harper’s products have been touted as being organic and chemical free, so when I got to see some of the products that the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) has in its collection, I was amused to see that the bottle of Tonique for oil hair lists the ingredients as “Cantharides, Sage, Salt, Quinine and Alcohol 50% by Volume.” According to sources online, a cantharide is an aphrodisiac. I wonder if that effect was part of the appeal of a Harper Method scalp massage!
That consistency in consistent training, high quality products and impeccable customer service was the key to her success – and the foundations of business franchising. At its peak in the 1920s, there were 500 Harper beauty shops worldwide, and, before the business closed, Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. boasted a full line of beauty products and clients including Jacqueline Kennedy, Danny Kaye, Helen Hayes, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.
Several artifacts including photos, beauty products, and even the trowel used to lay the cornerstone of the building can be found in the Martha Matilda Harper collection at Rochester Museum & Science Center.
The building now houses Tire Trax , a retail tire warehouse. The owner Paul Palmer, took me on a tour recently and he warned me that the place was jam packed with tires.
When she became too old to run the company, Harper passed the reins on to her husband. She died in August 1950, a month shy of her 93rd birthday.
In 1956, MacBain sold the company. It was sold again and eventually acquired by the largest operator of trades schools in the country. That company closed down all the Harper training programs; the Harper franchises continued to operate independently until owners died or retired. The last remaining franchised salon, the Harper Method Founder’s Shop, was owned by Centa Sailer and located in The Temple Building. It closed in the early 2000s; Ms. Sailer passed away in 2014.
Martha Matilda Harper’s methods of beauty and business live on, despite the fact that most people have never heard of her. The former home of Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. Laboratories on East Main stands as a legacy to the woman who changed beauty and business around the world, from right here in Rochester, NY.
For an in-depth look at Martha Matilda Harper, check out Jane R. Plitt’s book, Martha Matilda Harper and The American Dream: How One Woman Changed The Face of Modern Business from Syracuse University Press.
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Tags: 1233 East Main Street, Alexander Graham Bell, beauty treatment, Bertha Honore Palmer, business woman, Centa Sailer, Danny Kaye, East Main Street, Grace Coolidge, hair tonic, Harper Method Founder's Shop, Helen Hayes, Inc., Jacqueline Kennedy, Joanne Brokaw, Lady Bird Johnson, Mabel Graham Bell, Martha Matilda Harper, Powers Building, Robert MacBain, Rochester, Rochester beauty shop, Rochester history, Rochester NY, Susan B. Anthony, Temple Building, Tire Trax
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