Founder of franchising in U.S.-a Canadian?

“There’s been a marked absence of Harper from the history books – I think it’s because our society was not ready to acknowledge the brilliance of a businesswoman,” said Jane Plitt, a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester and author of Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream.

The Globe and Mail
May 3, 2000

Founder of franchising in U.S.-a Canadian?
Ben Dobbin

Who invented franchising, an industry set to surpass $1-trillion (U.S.) in sales in the United States this year? Ray Kroc of McDonald’s Corp. in 1955? Standard-menu pioneer Howard Dearing Johnson in 1926? Rexall Drug pharmacist Louis Liggett in 1902?

Wrong century, wrong sex.

In the late 19th century, Canadian-born Martha Matilda Harper, a 5-foot-tall domestic with floor-length hair, created what a new biography call the first U.S. retail franchise: a beauty salon chain that, at its peak in 1928, boasted 500 “branches” worldwide.

Harper Hair Dressing Salons prided themselves on trademark tonics and creams, and high-quality, standardized service. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson showed up for relaxing scalp massages at Harper’s in Paris while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

How could such an innovative, formidable entrepreneur fade into obscurity?

“There’s been a marked absence of Harper from the history books – I think it’s because our society was not ready to acknowledge the brilliance of a businesswoman,” said Jane Plitt, a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester and author of Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream.

Ms. Harper’s picaresque journey began in poverty in Canada. From the age of 7, she worked for 25 years as a servant and, through a friendship with an herbalist, learned about vigorous scalp treatments and shampoo formulas used to help retain hair’s healthy sheen.

After opening her first shop in Rochester in 1888, she recruited working class women to run salons from San Francisco to Detroit and Edinburgh to Berlin. Often relying on their mentor’s backing, “Harperites” remained loyal to her long after they became financially independent.

Ms. Harper ran training schools, set up co-ordinated advertising, insisted on organic ingredients. She designed business duplication tools mandatory in every salon, notably the first reclining shampoo chair.

She died in 1950 at age 93, but the Harper Method operated until 1972, when its assets were bought by a competitor. “This woman perfected modern franchising,” Ms. Plitt said.

“We have no reason to dispute it,” the International Franchise Association’s Terry Hill said of the assertion Ms. Harper trailblazed the business model.


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