🍟 5/1/2023 – The Mother of Franchising


The Story of Martha Matilda Harper

Born into extreme poverty, Martha Matilda Harper could’ve been destined for hardship. 

But by playing her cards right, she developed the first franchise ever and scaled it to 137+ locations.

Here’s her story..

Martha’s Childhood

Born in 1857, Martha came from nothing. Her 12 person family in just a single room cabin in the icy climate of Ontario. 

In order to make money for the family, Martha and her siblings were put to work by their father. Martha in particular was sent to work for a wealthy family as a domestic servant.

At the young age of 7, Martha began her working life, and quickly became a jack of all trades. She was able to cook, clean, and even tended to the family’s farm. 

But because of her family’s circumstances, she didn’t get to keep any of her pay. All of it went straight back to the family. 

A new client however, would change her circumstances forever…

The Physician

When she was 12, Martha began working as a servant to a physician. It just so happened that this physician had a deep interest in all things hair; hair structure, proper hygiene, and how to aid growth. 

Thanks to his mentorship, Martha would come to know a great deal about hair health.

Unfortunately, his mentorship didn’t last forever. When Martha was just 22, the doctor passed away. In his will, he left Martha with a recipe for an herbal hair tonic.

This tonic would become the foundation for her empire and would make Martha rich.

Building The First Franchise

Martha packed her bags and made way for Rochester, NY.

At that time, Rochester was like a 19th-century Silicon Valley- interesting and eclectic people were coming from faraway places to try bold, new business concepts.

It was the perfect place for a new beginning. Again though, Martha worked as a personal servant and in-house beautician for a very wealthy woman.

Martha had developed a knack for styling hair, so women from all over the city came to get their hair done and…most importantly, to buy her special hair tonic.

Now, Martha finally had a business opportunity. After going door to door with her hair tonic and servicing numerous clients, she decided to go out on her own.

At the age of 31, Martha invested her life savings into a month-to-month lease on a location in the iconic Powers building. The Harper Hairdressing Parlor was born. 

Like every new business though, it wasn’t an overnight success.

People weren’t eager to get their hair done in public, so Martha had to think outside the box to get people in the door. To get her first customers, she offered her salon as a waiting room to a piano teacher next door.

Mothers would drop their children off, then be treated to 2 hours of “The Harper Method”. This consisted of a deep tissue massage designed to supercharge hair growth. Using her own luscious head of hair as advertisement, the business became a hit. 

The key to the businesses success was it’s pragmatic growth. When a salon was requested in a new town, it wouldn’t open until a set number of women signed a petition.

Her employees or “Harperites” were extensively trained.These Harperites would become franchisees. While Martha maintained great control over the brand and operations, she was very franchisee-friendly.

They wouldn’t pay a traditional franchise fee. Instead, Martha would offer financing on the condition that they only stocked Harper products. What a great deal on both ends!

Harper Hairdressing’s Fate

Through the Great Depression, Martha shifted the business away from the services and more into her all-natural products. The business did well for the time, and weathered every challenge thrown at it growing to 137 locations at it’s peak.

But, the good times wouldn’t last. In the 30’s, Martha’s health began declining due to old age and dementia. She passed in 1950. In the wake of her death, the business began to suffer and was eventually sold off.

While you can’t find a Harper Beauty Parlor, her legacy lives on in every modern franchise.


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