Martha as Hairstylist / Shop Owner

In 1888 when Harper first opened her healthy hair and skincare salon for women in Rochester, NY, it was common practice for women’s hair to be “dressed” in the privacy of one’s home.  It was the Victorian era then and most people thought only prostitutes and lower-class women would publicly primp.

Harper decided to break with tradition and rejected the requests of many of her mistresses’ friends  to ‘dress” their hair in their homes and to sell them that marvelous hair tonic formula she brought from Canada .  Instead, she opened her first shop in 1888 in hopes of  earning money off of her hair and skincare knowledge., and by selling her tonic.   Building on her training to please, she invented the reclining shampoo chair so that patrons could avoid getting soapy suds in their faces.

As the shop gained in popularity, Harper needed to hire assistants and she turned to other former servant girls.  Bertha Farquar was her first.  Notably the Harper cornucopia logo symbolized Harper’s mantra, “Feed yourself. Free yourself.”

While Harper was an early pioneer in the beauty industry for women, she took controversial positions.  She prohibited hair dyes and other products that she considered unhealthy in her shops and manufactured only organic products.  No gossiping was allowed in the stores and owners were urged to value customers of all ages and staff. They were to:

  • hold weekly meeting with staff to get their feedback
  • set up child-friendly centers in the shops so that children could become comfortable being in the shops and parents would not miss their appointments.
  • implement incentives to encourage fair compensation to staff
  • visit and celebrate in Rochester, NY for annual “reunions,” building the esprit de corps among Harperites (Harper associates).

Harper products eventually were sold in department stores also, including Jordan Marsh in Boston.  Harper hairbrushes were considered state-of-the art, with their imported boar bristles, and were highly prized for stimulating blood flow.

Photo courtesy of Jane Plitt.

Harper reminded recruits:

[You are] the most important link in the Harper Method chain.  …We are helping women attain the best that life has to offer self-expression.  [You are] …making…[your] living, by choice, through serving other women and thus the world about…[you]. 

Become a Harper fan to find out more!