Martha Matilda Harper and the Invention of the Franchise

A couple of weeks ago, when I was doing research about 19th century hairstyles, I stumbled across the remarkable story of Martha Matilda Harper. Never heard of her? Neither had I, but she is an amazing woman! I had to share. This is a remarkable 19th century success story about courage, perseverance, and sheer, stubborn determination to raise the status of women and to enable them to stand on their own.

Martha Matilda Harper, courtesy of Wikicommons

Martha Matilda Harper, courtesy of Wikicommons

Martha Matilda Harper was born to a working class family in Oakville, Ontario in 1857. Not exactly the best circumstances to be born into if you were a woman. At the age of seven, her father sent her away to work as a domestic servant in the household of a relative. Martha Matilda (not sure if that’s what she was called, but I like the sound of it, sooo…) ended up working in service for 25 years.

Now, if this had been the story of any other young woman of humble origin in the mid-19th century, that would be it. Social climbing wasn’t exactly easy in this world. It was a time when a woman’s worth was determined by the men in her life, her father or her husband. Working class women didn’t just set out on their own to create a better life for themselves. And they certainly didn’t start businesses, right?

Well, Martha Matilda was not your average woman. She was smart and determined, and she had a good idea and an even better product: a hair tonic. I found conflicting information about this hair tonic. Most sources say that she invented it herself, but one says that it was invented by her last employer who bequeathed it to her when he died. Either way, the tonic was significant because it used all-natural ingredients and no chemicals or dyes. Martha Matilda was concerned by the beauty products available at the time and believed they did more harm than good. She saw that organic hair care products were better and set out to prove it. Her beauty regimen also called for a healthy diet and regular exercise. Yes, in the 19th century!

So Martha Matilda took her life savings, $360, and moved to Rochester, New York. She opened her first hair salon in 1888, employing her hair tonic and her unique methods of working with hair. At the time, most women had their hair “dressed” in the privacy of their own home. Only low-class women and prostitutes wanted to be seen primping in public. But Martha Matilda broke that mold. She was asked to go to the homes of wealthy women to work her magic, but she refused, insisting they come to her.

What followed was the revolution and possibly the invention of the modern salon. Martha Matilda’s salon was a place where women could go to relax and be pampered. It was progressive even by modern standards. The salon was open late for women who had to work during the day and childcare was provided on premises. It’s also interesting to note that Martha Matilda invented the reclining salon chair so that her clients would feel more comfortable while their hair was being washed.

Martha Matilda Harper's own hair was her best advertisement for her products, as you can see from the image on the cover of Jane R. Plitt's book.

Martha Matilda Harper’s own hair was her best advertisement for her products, as you can see from the image on the cover of Jane R. Plitt’s book.

That was only the beginning. As the salon became more and more popular, Martha Matilda needed to expand. She hired only poor women, women who had been in service or were looking to better themselves. She paid these women well, trained them in her methods, and had weekly salon meetings to discuss the workings of the business. None other than Susan B. Anthony praised Martha Matilda for the work she was doing to help women become entrepreneurs and improve their lot.

Wait, entrepreneurs? You mean it was more than just hiring a few women to work in her salon? Oh yeah!

In 1891, Martha Matilda came up with a model for franchising her shops. She based this model after the methods of the Christian Science church, which had a strong “mother church” with satellite operations that were provided with literature and a timetable of what to study when. She took this model and created training classes, a line of products, and set in place rules for how each of the salons would be run. In return, franchise owners had an opportunity for profit-sharing, which gave them the ability to control their own fortunes instead of having to rely on a man to provide for them.

In 1893, a friend of Martha Matilda’s, Bertha Palmer, encouraged her to open a salon in Chicago in time for the 1893 World’s Fair. Martha Matilda drove a hard bargain, requiring that Palmer have 25 of her friends commit in writing to patronizing the salon. She needn’t have worried. The Chicago salon was a success. It was also the beginning of a nationwide franchise system that, at its height, included 500 salons.

Yes, Martha Matilda Harper more or less invented the franchise system. It was a deliberate creation. The word “franchise” comes from the French and means “to free from servitude”. That was exactly what this humble, working class, former domestic servant sought to do for women. She believed that women were more than capable of providing for themselves, if given the opportunity. She was dedicated to creating that opportunity and successful at it. Her efforts enabled women to own their own businesses and author their own destinies, long before the rest of the world caught up with the Civil Rights movement.

And yet, I’d never heard of her until I stumbled across her a few weeks ago. It’s a shame. Women like Martha Matilda Harper deserve to be celebrated for the work of their lives and for the paths they cleared for women.

For more information about Martha Matilda Harper, check out this website:

and this page from PBS:


5 thoughts on “Martha Matilda Harper and the Invention of the Franchise

    • I know! Here was this remarkable woman making a real difference in a time that most people assume women were powerless, and I’d never heard of her either! Proof that History is written by the victor, or in this case maybe men?

  1. You always offer the most intriguing historical tidbits. 🙂 I’ve never heard of her either, and that is a shame. Maybe someday more remarkable people – regardless of gender, ethnicity, or age – will be remembered and respected by everyone. Until then, at least there are people like you to dig them out and shine a little well-deserved light. 🙂

    • Ah thanks! I have always believed that there is far more to history than the boring stuff that is reported in history books. These were the lives people lived, after all, and people are always fascinating! =D

  2. How very interesting. My g-g-grandmother, born in Ireland in 1850, was in the hair, and wig business in Philidelphia. She is listed in the 1890 Philly directory under her maiden name, many years after she’d married and had children. She apparently didn’t change it until her husband dies. I wonder if Martha and she knew of each other.

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