RMSC spotlights Martha Matilda Harper

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When the Harper Method Hair Parlour, a hair salon franchise, was sold to a competitor in the 1970s, Betty Wheeler, a former Harper employee, and her husband went to the dumpster, three days in a row, to collect items from the closed store.

Thirty-six cartons of Harper artifacts were moved five times to different houses but never thrown out.

Years later, when Jane Plitt called Wheeler to ask about the Harper Method and if she had any items, she asked: “What took you so long?” 

Later this month, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, which now houses some of those items, will premiere “The Marvelous Martha,” a documentary on the life of Martha Matilda Harper, creator of the Harper Method and an influential, but little known early female Rochester entrepreneur and innovator.

The rediscovery of Harper began about 30 years ago with the opening of a bank at the Powers Building. As part of that opening, Plitt, who worked at a marketing consulting firm at the time, created a Powers’ history gallery with donated materials and stories from the community. 

One of the donated artifacts, a newspaper clipping on Harper joining the Rochester Chamber of Commerce as the first woman, caught Plitt’s eye.

“I only ever saw white men’s portraits on the walls there,” says Plitt, who served as a chamber member. “As a feminist, as a businesswoman, I thought, ‘There’s a story here, someone should tell it, but not me. I wasn’t a historian, I wasn’t a writer.’ But then it was as though she snuck into my heart or my soul and I said, ‘What the heck? I’ll do it.’”

Plitt, who has since written a biography, a young adult novel, and a children’s book on Harper and was the researcher who called Wheeler, learned that Harper was a maid bound into servitude at seven years old in Ontario, Canada, who never stopped dreaming and working toward escaping from her situation.

After the death of one of her employers, a German holistic doctor who gifted Harper with a special shampoo formula, she crossed the border to Rochester, her dream still in mind.

It was in Rochester that Harper opened her first salon in 1888, an endeavor which required a lawsuit to force the Powers Building to allow her access. Her store, which featured an advertisement of Harper herself with Rapunzel-like hair, was unique and directly countered the Victorian ideal of styling one’s hair in the privacy of a home. Harper also invented a reclining shampoo chair to avoid getting clothes wet or soap in patrons’ eyes.

If Harper had chosen another community, she might not have found success, Plitt believes. From George Eastman, John Jacob Bausch and Henry Lomb to Susan B. Anthony, Rochester was a large landing spot for trailblazers, she observes.

“(In the late 1800s) Rochester was used to people who were thinking outside of the box,” Plitt says. “If you were a weirdo by the era’s standards, it embraced you.”

A Harper salon in Rochester (Photo: Martha Matilda Harper collection, RMSC)

As an owner, Harper held weekly meetings for staff feedback, set up child-friendly centers so parents would not miss their appointments, and implemented incentives to encourage fair compensation to staff.

“Her childhood was filled with hardship and ugliness, but she preservered. In her shops, it was important to celebrate your achievements, delight your customers and also bring others along with you,” Plitt says.

By 1891, Harper was able to bring others along with her by opening other Harper shops as franchise locations. As a Christian Scientist, she used an organizational structure similar to church. The Harper method, as the franchisees would learn to follow from the Harper headquarters in Rochester, was popular and bred dedication and loyalty in “Harperites” like Wheeler.

Martha Matilda Harper, circa 1914
(Photo: Library of Congress)

There were as many as 500 stores across multiple continents at the company’s peak in the 1920s. The first 100 franchises were set aside for poor women with a similar background to Harper.

“You are the most important link in the Harper Method chain. We are helping women attain the best that life has to offer, self-expression. You are making your living, by choice, through serving other women and thus the world about you,” Harper wrote to new recruits. 

Plitt points to the way Ray Kroc, who began franchising with McDonald’s, is remembered as a business genius.

“(Harper) isn’t the only woman to be ignored or forgotten in history,” Plitt says. “I hope that Martha becomes every Rochesterian’s heroine and that no matter their background, everyone in the community can find inspiration with the remarkable Martha.”

Plitt was instrumental in Harper’s induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Business Hall of Fame. “The Marvelous Martha” premiere is scheduled for June 21 at 7 p.m. It  includes a Q&A with Plitt.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

4 thoughts on “RMSC spotlights Martha Matilda Harper

  1. This is great! Harper’s story is one of my favorites from Rochester’s rich history. Jane, thanks as always for bringing her to life and for your persistence all these years in telling her story. Congratulations on this next step! Where can we view the documentary outside of the event?

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