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Biography of Care Experienced People

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Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream

Jane Plitt


Martha Matilda Harper was born the 4th child of Beady Gifford Harper and Robert Harper, a tailor, in a village on the outskirts of Oakville, Ontario. At the age of 7, when her father was facing a significant financial crisis, Martha was sent away to live with relatives and become a servant. At the age of 12, she moved in to become a servant for strangers. In 1882, Martha relocated to Rochester in New York. One of her tasks for her new employer, Luella Roberts, was to care for Luella's hair and it wasn't long before friends of Luella's began requesting Martha to care for their's too. At a time when servants cared for their mistresses’ hair, or hairdressers came to the house, Martha set up in business in a shop, investing her life savings of $360 to open the Harper Hairdressing Parlor. Eventually women asked her to set up business in other cities and Harper decided to duplicate her shop throughout the country. She hired working classing women, primarily former domestic servants, to operate franchises. Harper chose locations for shops, provided products, training and advertising, and often the initial funding for women to set up shops (which they paid back) and then as women—or agents as Harper called them—ran their own businesses, Harper was able to significantly expand hers.

According to Jane Plitt, Martha Matilda Harper became the “mother of American retail franchising” (p. 62) although her model did not become a dominant one until the second half of the 20th century.

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