Bound out into servitude from the time she was seven years old, Martha Matilda Harper was determined to alter her life. However, it took her 25 years of servitude, a bit of luck, and a whole lot of determination to change her destiny. When her last Canadian employer bequeathed her his special hair tonic formula, she immigrated to Rochester, NY, where people were different. It was a community famous for progressive thinking citizens such as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and lots of ambitious entrepreneurs.
In 1888, using her lifetime savings of $360, she launched her first shop and manufactured her special hair tonic . The shop became THE place for women to go; many brought their out-of- town friends. That is how Bertha Palmer, from the Chicago Palmer House, came to experience the Harper Method. Palmer, always decisive, demanded that Harper open a Harper shop in Chicago in time for the 1893 World’s Fair. Palmer was the chair of the Fair’s Women’s Division and wanted to show off the latest women’s fashion for the event. Harper retorted that Palmer needed to get 25 of Palmer’s best friends to commit in writing that they would patronize Harper’s shop! Palmer delivered and then Harper had to figure out a way to expand. She did and a worldwide network of Harper shops resulted. (See Martha and franchising for how.)
Harper applied innovative thinking to running her business. She established childcare centers, recognized the importance of recognizing and listening to employees, and niche marketed the Harper Method with its exclusive line of organic products and scientific methods. (See Harper as a stylist/shopowner.)
Harper’s empire lasted long beyond her death in 1950. However, in 1972, the Harper Method assets were sold to PEJ Beauty Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wilfred Academy, a Harper competitor. PEJ closed down all the Harper training programs. The Harper franchises continued to operated independently until owners died or retired. The original Harper shop was the last to close.