Martha Matilda Harper: The Innovator Who Changed the Face of Business and Beauty

Martha Matilda Harper is buried in Riverside Cemetery.

I sit in the chair, my head covered in bits of aluminum foil, the smell of bleach masked by the essential oils in the products being used by the practitioner at the next station.

I’m at the salon to have my gray roots covered. At the last minute, I decided to add some highlights to try and lighten the all over color of my hair. The products at this salon might be plant-based and organic, and bottled in environmentally friendly packaging, but there’s nothing natural about the chemicals used to create my sun-kissed locks.

At the sink, as the stylist readies to wash my hair, I recline back in the chair, rest my neck in the sink indentation, and wonder what Martha Matilda Harper would think.

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The building at 1233 East Main street used to house Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. Laboratories.

I was introduced to Martha Matilda Harper in 2015, when I noticed her name etched over the front door of 1233 East Main Street. I wondered if the building had once been a school. It has that look: square structure, rows of windows, a welcoming front door, and the name etched over the front door. There was even a flag pole gracing the front of the building. But who was Martha Matilda Harper, and what had she done to have a school named after her?

I was curious enough that when I got home I googled her name. That’s when I learned that the building wasn’t a school, but the one time home of Martha Matilda Harper Laboratories, the headquarters of what was once an international beauty product and retail franchising phenomenon.

Postcard promoting the new home of Martha Matilda Harper Laboratories, “where Mascaro products are manufactured.”

I first wrote about Martha Matilda Harper back in 2015 for RochesterSubway.com, but I love her story and tell it whenever I get the chance. So here’s an updated post.

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Martha Matilda Harper was born in Ontario, Canada in 1857. She was only seven years old when her father sent her to live with relatives to work as their domestic servant. She eventually went on to work for a holistic physician who had been doing research into hair care and hygiene, apparently novel concepts at the time.

The doctor taught Harper his hair care secrets, which included increasing blood flow to the scalp with robust hair brushing and attention to scalp hygiene – for example, using a fine comb to clear way obstructions from the hair follicles and a stiff brush to help stimulate the scalp. He also experimented with hair tonics and, on his deathbed, shared with Harper the secret formula for a tonic he’d created that stimulated hair growth.

When Harper emigrated to Rochester in 1882 to take another job as a domestic servant, she brought that secret formula with her.

Martha Matilda Harper, courtesy of the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

Harper began manufacturing the hair tonic in a backyard shed, likely behind the home of Luella and Owen Roberts, at 717 East Main Street, where she worked as a domestic servant. She experimented with the tonic on her own hair, which cascaded in luxurious waves to the floor, and then started treating the hair of her mistress. Mrs. Roberts was happy with the results, and her friends took notice of her beautiful tresses. Before long, Harper was dressing the hair of the society women who were friends of her employer.

That’s when Harper had her next novel idea: to open a salon where women could come to her to have their hair treated, using her unique methods and special tonics and products.

In 1888, using her lifetime savings of $360, Harper set out to open her own beauty shop. But she fell ill from exhaustion. It was then that she was introduced to Mary Baker Eddy’s teachings on Christian Science – teachings that emphasized good health, women’s empowerment, and women serving in leadership positions in the church. Harper became a Christian Scientist; this would not only change her life but would go on to influence her business practices.

Ad from the 1889 Rochester city directory.

Harper rented space in the Powers Building to open her first beauty shop. It’s important to remember that in the 1880s women didn’t leave their house to have their hair done (or “dressed”). They had maids or servants who handled the task (or they did it themselves) in the privacy of their homes. Women also didn’t wash their hair with soaps or harsh chemicals. So Harper was taking a chance with such a novel business idea as a public shampooing salon.

In fact, in Jane Plitt’s well researched book “Martha Matilda Harper and American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business (Writing American Women)“, Plitt recounts that Daniel Powers, the rich, respected, and powerful owner of the now iconic building where Harper tried to rent space, at first refused her. In his mind, the wearing of cosmetics (as well as the public beauty practices Harper was promoting) was not for proper women, and he didn’t want to risk his reputation on a business that he believed would attract, yes, prostitutes.

Harper appealed to another tenant in the building and convinced him to vouch for her; he suggested that Powers lease space to Harper on a month-to-month basis. Powers agreed.

Determined to prove Powers wrong, Harper refused service to “questionable” clients. She appealed to the society women whose hair she’d been treating; while they begged her to return to treating them in the privacy of their homes, she refused. They had to come to her. She was determined to look for opportunities to attract the “right” customers, and she hit pay dirt when a music studio moved in next door to her salon. Before long, the mothers who were waiting while their children had music lessons came to have their hair done.

Soon, Harper’s salon was the talk of the town. Powers was impressed and offered her a long term lease. Harper refused; month-to-month worked just fine for her. In fact, Plitt notes in her book, Harper was the building’ only tenant with no lease, and remained so for the entire fifty years the business was housed there.

Harper emphasized beauty with a holistic approach;  she promoted inner beauty brought out by healthy nutrition and exercise, and she eschewed harsh chemicals. With her proven hair tonic and a loyal clientele, she drew customers from far and wide, including Susan B. Anthony, Mabel Graham Bell (wife of Alexander Graham Bell), and future First Lady Grace Coolidge.

Socialite and philanthropist Bertha Honore Palmer, whose husband owned Chicago’s Palmer House hotel, traveled to Rochester to experience the Harper Method firsthand. She convinced Martha Matilda Harper to open a shop in Chicago in time for the 1893 World’s Fair.

Harper was shrewd; she told Palmer that she would open the salon, but only if Palmer would ensure that her friends would patronize it. Palmer delivered a petition with the signatures of her friends, ensuring Harper a steady clientele, and the Chicago salon became the second in what would eventually be a female-empowering, franchising revolution.

Susan B. Anthony reportedly urged Harper to create opportunities for women, so Harper – influenced by the Christian Science model of a mother church with satellite churches using the same prayer books – started training women in her methods of beauty treatment, which included facial and scalp massages, healthy approaches to skin and hair care, and creating a calm environment for customers. She then sent them out to open their own salons, independent business that carried her Harper Method name. Owners were required to use only her organic, chemical-free products and Harper Methods (which included diet and exercise in the beauty routine) and to conform to her precise business practices. She especially worked with poor working class women like herself, offering them opportunity for business success and financial independence.

There’s much in the Harper Method to be found in modern natural beauty care regimes. And there’s one more thing we can thank her for: Martha Matilda Harper created a reclining salon chair and a sink with an indentation for the neck as a way to shampoo her clients’ hair without getting soap suds in their faces – designs she unfortunately failed to patent.

The original reclining salon chair, designed by Martha Matilda Harper. In the collection at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

The Rochester Museum and Science Center is the repository for much of the records, products, and other memorabilia Plitt acquired while researching her book, and I got to take a peek in some of the boxes, which contain photos, beauty products, and even the trowel used to lay the cornerstone of the building on East Main Street.

A page from a student’s copy of the Harper Method Manual, in the collection at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

One thing I noticed on the bottle of Tonique: Harper’s products have been touted as being organic and chemical free, so I was amused to see the list of ingredients:  “Cantharides, Sage, Salt, Quinine and Alcohol 50% by Volume.” According to sources online, a cantharide is an aphrodisiac. While aphrodisiac’s are typically taken internally, I can’t help but wonder if there was an effect that was part of the appeal of a Harper Method scalp massage!

Consistent training, high quality products, and impeccable customer service were the keys to her success – and the foundations of business franchising. At its peak in the 1920s, there were 500 Harper beauty shops worldwide, and, before the business closed, Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. boasted a full line of beauty products; her clients included Jacqueline Kennedy, Danny Kaye, Helen Hayes, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson.

Through all of this success, Harper remained single. But in 1920, at age 63, she married Robert MacBain, a man more than 20 years her junior. He liked to be called The Captain; ever the feminine trailblazer, Martha Matilda Harper kept her maiden name.

In 1921, the building at 1233 East Main St. was built as the headquarters and laboratories of Martha Matilda Harper, Inc. Almost 100 years later, the building now houses a retail tire warehouse. Back in 2015, the owner, Paul Palmer, took me on a tour. He warned me that the place was jam packed with tires, and he wasn’t kidding. Every space on the first and third floors is crammed with tires; the only reason the second floor isn’t, he explained, is because the freight elevator doesn’t stop on that floor.

Students and employees once walked the halls and stairways where tires are now stored.

There have been some renovations to the building since it was the Harper headquarters, but the stairwells are still there and the old elevator, which is original to the building, is still in use. (You can see more photos of the building today in the post at RochesterSubway.com) It’s amazing to think that almost a century ago, students and beauty professionals walked these same halls, creating products, and honing skills that would impact the beauty industry around the world.

When she became too old to run the company, Harper passed the reins on to her husband. She died in August 1950, a month shy of her 93rd birthday.

In 1956, MacBain sold the company. It was sold again and eventually acquired by the largest operator of trades schools in the country. That company closed down all the Harper training programs; the Harper franchises continued to operate independently until owners died or retired. The last remaining franchised salon, the Harper Method Founder’s Shop, was owned by Centa Sailer and located in The Temple Building. It closed in the early 2000s; Ms. Sailer passed away in 2014.

Martha Matilda Harper’s methods of beauty and business live on – in the salon experience, the modern method of retail franchising, and even more simply, that reclining chair and hair washing sink. The former home of Martha Matilda Harper Laboratories on East Main stands as a legacy to the woman who changed beauty and business around the world, from right here in Rochester, NY.

Martha Matilda Harper is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Rochester, NY, in Section J, lot 427. Finding her interment record was a bit tricky; while she kept her maiden name, the cemetery lists her at “Martha H MacBain”. She died of a coronary occlusion and was interred on August 7, 1950.

The plot where Martha Matilda Harper and her husband, Capt. Robert A. MacBain are buried.

While the stone marking her name is large and bears her maiden name – Martha Matilda Harper – the epitaph reads simply “Wife of Capt. Robert A. MacBain”. In front and to the side is a marker for The Captain, detailing his military service.

But there’s nothing to note that buried at the spot is the woman whose business acumen and pioneering spirit changed the business world.

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The Rochester Museum and Science Center has items from the Harper collection on display during their “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not” exhibit, which runs through January 2, 2018.

For an in-depth look at Martha Matilda Harper, check out Jane R. Plitt’s book, “Martha Matilda Harper and American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business (Writing American Women)” or visit her website.

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