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The American Dream: In a Dress

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What do Ray Kroc, the innovative businessman who took the Mc Donald’s hamburger worldwide, and is recognized as the acknowledged leader in franchising in the U.S., Dave Thomas, the man who single-handedly gave Ray Kroc a run for his money by opening a competing hamburger joint (which he named after his daughter, Wendy), and an early 20th century female entrepreneur with cascading long hair, have in common?


Success and an entrepreneurial spirit. Yes, we can also say they all possessed a keen business sense but it was their inherent understanding of how to do business, a sense that was as much a part of their nature as their shoe size or their eye color, that propelled them down the road of success.

So, why is it that I can mention Ray Kroc or Dave Thomas and you immediately know who I’m speaking of, but if I mention Martha Matilda Harper, you haven’t a clue who I’m talking about? I submit that it’s because Martha Matilda Harper was a woman far ahead of her time. Her gender has relegated her to invisibility. Despite her outstanding success in a world that did its best to deny women a place in business, Harper, not Kroc or Thomas, single-handedly invented the franchising business, as we know it in America today.

It’s All About Martha

Martha was a small woman, less than five feet tall. Her defining feature was her luxurious mane of long, flowing hair. How she raised herself up from a world of poverty to the status of an educated, successful business entrepreneur– virtually on her own – without financial help from family or friends, and how she managed to gain the friendship of women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell, as well as the wives of several U.S. presidents, and even some royalty, is a tale burdened with moments of despair and desolation, but one that ends in triumph and tribulation.

Born to a poor family in Ontario, Canada in 1857, Martha was bound out to relatives at the age of seven. Her father was determined to hold onto a parcel of land he’d no business purchasing in the first place. The only way to do that was to send Martha into servitude! Perhaps her mother did not care to see seven-year old Martha sent away from home, perhaps the young Martha was devastated to be sent away from home, but society at the time dictated that women do as their men required, so Martha was sent away.

After twenty-two years of domestic servitude in Canada, Martha immigrated to Rochester, NY, at the age of 35. She continued in service for three more years managing to secure positions in upscale homes, and, having learned over the years that a pleasant, helpful attitude put her employers in a better mood each day, Martha became a trusted friend in addition to being a servant.

It was this attitude of helpfulness that would help make Martha’s fortune for her. Yes, she had a product that proved popular, and in her stubbornness, was able to get a store location that would attract upscale customers, but it was her customer service – an unheard of idea at the time – that was the true foundation of Martha’s success.

Hair Raising Stakes

History remembers Martha for her long hair; a beautiful mane that cascaded down her back all the way to the floor; a shimmering cloak of beauty and softness. It was her hair that opened the door to business success for Martha. It was the scientific formula of chemicals and hair treatments, kept carefully guarded in her room, which aided her in becoming a marketing marvel in the nineteenth century. Her biography can be read in more detail at these Web sites …

Winning the Vote

Martha Matilda Harper

In August of 1950, her death led the newspapers of the day to write things such as:

“No respectable woman entered a beauty shop, nor would a respectable office building house one, when Martha Matilda Harper opened her first cosmetic business in Rochester, NY, using her own floor-length hair as advertisement.”

And, “Miss Harper’s death last week-end in the same city ended a success story that unfolded like a melodrama with a rags-to-riches plot, as one of the earliest cosmetic sagas.” [Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream by Jane R. Plitt, Syracuse University Press, 2000]

Throughout her life, Martha held that the customer was always right! Service to the customer was the most important part of owning a Harper business, as she often told “her girls.”

Biography after biography shows the deep sense of commitment this wondrous woman put into serving those who frequented her beauty shops. In its day, her shops attracted royalty, president’s wives, society matrons, and thousands of others all over the world, who swore by the Harper beauty method. When, at the age of 63, Martha married a man more than twenty years her junior, no one thought much of it. After all, she was a beautiful woman who had taken care of her health over the years and possessed the energy of a woman twenty years younger! (In her book on Martha, Jane R. Plitt notes that in Martha’s day, it was not uncommon for women to marry younger men.)

Harper Beauty Salons

Martha’s story is far too important, to be relegated to this short note. As her business grew, she invited other women, women who might have been locked in servitude as Martha herself had been, to open Harper Beauty salons. She trained them carefully and insisted they use her products. She even insisted they buy their equipment from her. For a small fee they were able to start an already thriving business, build it into personal success using proven methods, giving Martha a small percentage of the profits. To accomplish the goal of assisting others in becoming business owners, Martha opened her own training facility, another venture that brought in capital but served the greater good.

If this sounds familiar, it is. It’s the same popular franchising model for selling fast food. The next time you shell out your $5 for that hamburger and fries, remember who really started the franchising business model…Martha Matilda Harper.

In a man’s world, no less. Wow. Why isn’t anyone talking about that?

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