Why a forgotten Rochester heroine needs to be remembered

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Harper’s name can be seen etched into the Harper Method factory building that still stands at 1233 E. Main St.
(Postcard courtesy of Rochester Museum and Science Center.)

As we continue to face issues of immigration, economic prosperity and what the American Dream means, it is time to re-embrace entrepreneur Martha Matilda Harper and bring her lessons to life. That is why as a former Rochester businesswoman, I devoted over 25 years to unearthing and showcasing Harper’s remarkable story. And it is why I continue to tell it.

Jane Plitt

Harper was a 19thcentury Canadian immigrant who was bound out as a servant at the age of seven. She came to Rochester like many immigrants—with dreams of a better life. What Harper ultimately achieved was groundbreaking, creating the business model known as retail franchising to extend the reach of her beauty shops around the world. Women from poor backgrounds, many former servants like herself, owned and operated these shops. The company’s network of fiercely loyal Harperites, as they called themselves, grew to more than 500 salons.

Rochesterians should take particular pride in Harper and her success because it reflects on the openness of this community at that time to embrace someone who was different, who thought outside the box, who was female, and who dared to do business in a man’s world. She enlisted and received help from former Congressman John van Voorhis, and capitalized on prominent visitors like First Lady Grace Coolidge, Chicago and Sarasota socialite Bertha Palmer, and Mabel Graham-Bell, wife of Alexander. Her business savvy and lessons are as relevant today as they were in 1888 when she opened her first beauty shop for women in the Powers Building. 

One of Harper’s lessons was to capitalize on your assets. Because she was a servant for 25 years, she knew how to please people (delight the customer), so she invented the first reclining shampoo chair we use today in barber and beauty shops. Other lessons she promoted 80 years ago could be book titles today: dare to dream, persevere, seize opportunities, commit the customer, lead and brand, use win-win strategies, provide for children (they are your future customers), reward your staff and customers and celebrate your achievements.  

World leaders were devoted customers: British and German royalty, film and stage stars, U.S. presidents and their families, along with suffragists encouraged by Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony, who used Harper as an example of what the women’s vote could lead to, stating, “Every woman needs a pocketbook.”

Harper pioneered social entrepreneurship, a catchword these days, demonstrating how business can bring about positive social change. In 1926, with over 500 Harper shops worldwide, she declared the company’s achievements consisted not “of the large number of our shops, though the sun never sets on them. … It does not rest on the scientific perfection of our treatments and our formulae, or wholly in the service we give. The Great Achievement of the Harper Method is the women it has made.” 

Jane Plitt is an author, entrepreneur and speaker. Rochester Museum & Science Center will hold a reception today from 5:30 to 7 p.m. to launch a new paperback edition of Plitt’s book “Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream.” RMSC is the official repository for Harper archives. On display will be prototypes of Harper’s reclining shampoo chairs, products and training guides. The event is free, but reservations are recommended. Call (585) 697-1942.

A new paperback edition of “Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream” includes a directory of Harper shops around the world in 1940. The company had 12 shops in Rochester:

1103 Temple Building
46 Vassar St.
641 Thurston Road
75 Northgate Road
1357 Culver Road
349 University Ave.
516 Powers Building
Hotel Zumbro
525 Burke Building
208 Scottsville Road
133 Genesee St.
737 Mercantile Building

Jane Plitt is scheduled to speak about the importance of Martha Matilda Harper to Rochester, women and the world of business at St John Fisher College’s Business School on June 20, 12-1:30pm. Register here.


One thought on “Why a forgotten Rochester heroine needs to be remembered

  1. What a great story. Thought I knew about pretty much all the old Rochester movers and shakers, but was never aware of Harper, or that she was the mother of retail franchising. Wow! And she was certainly ahead of her time when it came to empowerment, branding and customer service. Definitely going to get this book 😉

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