Today we think of franchising pioneers as “McDonald’s” and other fast food entrepreneurs. Hold your horses. Another “borrowed” brainstorm that went right past the true story. My blogs are full of these missing pieces of history. It’s why I blog!

Born on September 10, 1857, in a small village in Ontario, Canada, Marth Matilda Harper began life with bleak prospects. She was the 4th of 10 children — all of whom shared a one-room log cabin — and her father, a tailor by trade, was (in her later words) a “stern, unflinching English pioneer too preoccupied with his daily struggle to pay much heed to [her].” Eventually, he pivoted his business to “renting out” his children for labor. At the age of 7, Harper was sent off to be a house servant for a wealthy Ontario farm.

In Rochester, Harper saw promise in the bustling economy and progressive culture. Once again, she found work as a servant — first for a local attorney, then for a wealthy woman named Luella J. Roberts. In the late 19th century, haircare was done in the home, usually by a servant. Harper assumed the role of Ms. Roberts’ personal beautician, doling out scalp massages and hair dressings. She was so skilled that the high-society women of Rochester were soon visiting the house for their own treatments.


1888: Her salon opened in 1888 in Rochester using her life savings of $360.
1891: In 1891, at the urging of Bertha Palmer of the Palmer House fame, Harper became the first to start modern retail franchising, allowing franchisees to open salons under the Harper name.
1893: Palmer wanted Harper to open her unique hair salon in Chicago in 1893 in time for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which Harper did.

Martha Matilda Harper died on August 03, 1950 in Rochester, United States.


Harper was born near Oakville, Ontario, Canada, and at age seven, she was bound out into servitude. For the next twenty-five years, she remained a servant, but was determined to find a path out of her poverty- stricken world.  Fortunately, her last Canadian employer was a holistic doctor who taught her about healthy hair care including demonstrating the power of his proprietary hair tonic. As a result, Harper had Rapunzel-like floor length hair.  On his deathbed, the doctor bequeathed Harper the hair tonic formula. With it, she left Canada in 1882 and emigrated to Rochester, NY, a hotbed of entrepreneurial innovation and social advocacy. 

Harper remained a servant for six more years until she opened Rochester’s first beauty salon for women with her lifetime savings of $360 in 1888.  That was the same year George Eastman launched the KODAK camera with one million dollars of venture capital.  Harper located her salon in the most fashionable office building in Rochester, where people banked, visited art galleries, took music lessons, and conducted various business transactions. It happened that Susan B. Anthony’s trusted lawyer, former Congressman John Van Voorhis, was located in that building.

For the first 100 Harper shops, Harper put only poor women into ownership positions of each shop.  Harper, thereby, was also a pioneer of social entrepreneurship. Ultimately, there were 500 such franchises around the world.  British royalty, the German Kaiser, U. S. Presidents and their First Ladies, suffragists, luminaries were all loyal Harper customers.

 Harper’s success was recognized around the world.  When she died in 1950 even the NY Times wrote a two -column obituary about Harper, citing her relationship with Anthony.  Unfortunately, Harper’s achievements and the role of the suffragists in creating this new business model has been forgotten. It is time to credit Harper with the fastest growing segment of retailing— franchising.  
Martha Harper, Franchising Pioneer
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