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Martha Matilda Harper, an inventive businesswoman

During the pandemic and multiple lockdowns all around the world, many wished they could go to a hairdresser’s salon and have a proper haircut. This was a part of so many things we take for granted in our everyday lives.

But, let’s go back to the basics! Did you know that up until the XIX century, women could not get a haircut outside of their home! It was considered indecent for a woman to have a haircut outside of her house. Women would cut their hair themselves or they would have it cut by their maids, which was, obviously not the case of many women.

First hairdresser’s salon

Having a possibility to go to a hairdresser’s salon, we owe to Martha Matilda Harper, an incredible innovative and patient woman. This is the story about her.

Martha Matilda Harper was born in a poor family in 1857 in Canada and she was obliged to start working at the age of 7. She had been a maid for 25 years before she managed to save enough money to make her dream come true. Despite her poverty, she was determined to become an independent woman and to own a business.

But before she managed to become a powerful woman behind a great idea, she worked for a doctor in Canada. He treated Martha with great respect, taught her many valuable things about human body and gave her potions that she used for her hair. On his death bad he gave her the secret formula for that shampoo, which was a trigger for her brilliant business idea. Since Martha was very close to the doctor, his death was very difficult for her but at the same time these new circumstances pushed her to pursue her dreams of independence and become a businesswoman.

When did feminism start, you are wondering? You can read more about first wave feminism that has a lot to do with the period when Martha boldly started her own business.

Inspiring brave woman behind a great idea

Martha Matilda Harper decided to move to Rochester, USA, where the society was more advanced and tolerant, specially towards women. This was the time when women could not even vote! At that time only 17% of women worked, but not many, not to say none, were owners of businesses. That is why she thought that opening a hairdresser’s salon for women in a more progressive environment would be easier.

martha harper

When she finally managed to move to Rochester, Martha had to work for additional 6 years in order to save 360 dollars to open the very first public hairdresser salon. She had to ask for an official permission to open it but her petition was refused.

Did this stop Martha? Of course not! She took a lawyer and asked for the decision to be reversed. She won the case and opened, what is known today as the very first hair dresser’s salon for women in 1888 in Rochester USA.

Progressive marketing strategies

As an advertising for her hair dresser’s salon, she used a photo of herself as Rapunzel, with hair down to her feet, in great health. She understood the importance of good advertising and had her pictures taken.

inventor of franchise

She tested all the products on herself. Martha used only the natural products, refused to die women’ hair and refused to do the chemical perms. Something like a today’s beauty, eco influencer.

martha matilda harper

Martha named her services the Harper method and she wanted to nourish her customers’ soul and hair. She also taught her clients that anyone could be spiritually whole and beautiful as she was if they took care of their hygiene (we are at the end of the XIX century, hygiene was not as important as it is today), their breath, nourishment and physical health. She was a real preacher, an example for so many.

On top of that, she also supported women by giving them jobs. All the women that worked for her were just like her, formerly maids.

As she was on the head of the very first hairdresser’s salon, she needed a comfortable and adaptable chair for her clients and she invented the first reclining shampoo chair that we use even today.

Very quickly she became very famous and many stars and important people came from all over the USA to have a haircut at her salon. Her method became so famous that they urged her to open the same salon in other cities across the USA.

Invention after invention

Not only that she revolutionized haircut, invented her own method, became one the very first businesswomen, understood how the marketing worked, along the way helped a lot of poor women, but she also did something that never existed before! She installed a hairdresser’s salons all across the USA and let working class women run it, using exactly the same products, the same philosophy, the same looking salons. She invented the concept of franchise! Martha’s goal was to empower other women by giving them a possibility to own and run their own salons.

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harper method

These hairdresser salons existed not only in the USA but also in Europe, Central America and Asia and there were very quickly over 500. She set a business model that will last up until today.

Martha Matilda Harper died in 1950. In 2003, 53 years after her death, she was included in the national women’s hall of fame for her achievement in business.

She empowered so many women, allow them to have stability, independence, higher self-esteem and showed that women can be inventive, hard-working, successful, owners of their own businesses. Her working model has been dominant around the world. Half of retails that operate in the USA today are based on this model.

Martha Matilda Harper’s story teaches us to follow our dreams, to be patient and to persistent, not to let our hopes and plans be crushed by bureaucracy or people that do not believe in us. We are the only ones that need to believe in ourselves and even better if we support other women along the way!

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