Martha Matilda Harper


Revolutionizing the Heritage of Women in Business

After working as a maid for 25 years, immigrant Martha Matilda Harper innovated organic only products and equipment that changed the beauty industry and launched modern retail franchising to enable poor women to gain financial independence, pioneering the franchise method and social entrepreneurship for women’s empowerment.

Bound into servitude by her father at the age of seven, Martha Matilda Harper left Canada for Rochester in 1882 when she was 25. She continued to work as a domestic servant in Rochester while refining a special hair tonic formula. With her lifetime savings of $360 and the help of lawyer John Van Voorhis, Martha opened Rochester’s first beauty salon for women in 1888. Her shop in the fashionable Powers Building became a celebrated local showplace for women and their visitors to experience the Harper Method. Susan B. Anthony and other key Rochesterians played a supportive role in her success.

With the encouragement of Bertha Palmer from Chicago, Martha created what today we know as the retail franchise when her sister opened the first Harper Method branch office in 1891 in Buffalo. Within 40 years, there were more than 500 Harper Method shops around the world and multiple training centers. Martha hired former maids like herself and working-class women to work in her shop and to become Harper shop owners. She controlled business locations, product lines, services, target markets, and held annual reunions of Harperites here in Rochester.

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