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Biographer says Martha Matilda Harper's remarkable story should not be lost to history

Jun 18, 2019

Author Jane Plitt worries that Martha Matilda Harper's remarkable story has been lost to history.

"Her story needs to be held up in the same way that George Eastman is," said Plitt, "as a representative of using business for social change."

Harper, with the help of her intelligence, determination, and floor-length hair, rose from the servant class to worldwide entrepreneur, and her rags-to-riches story started in Rochester.

In 1888, the same year George Eastman unveiled the Kodak camera, Harper, a Canadian immigrant, opened her beauty shop in the Powers Building.

That in itself was a victory. David Powers, the owner of the prominent building, feared such a shop would attract women of "ill repute."  In the 19th century, society women had their hair done in their own homes.

Harper, knowing that Congressman and attorney John VanVoorhis had supported suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, asked him to represent her. He convinced Powers to allow the beauty shop to open on a month-to-month basis, with the understanding that he could shut it down if it drew the wrong people. 

Harper's shop drew plenty of people, but nobody that Power had worried about. Harper's first clients included Anthony as well as ladies from the upper class of society. Eventually, her franchise locations around the world would include clients like two first ladies, actress Helen Hayes, and British and German royalty.

Harper invented the reclining shampoo chair still used in salons today, and her beauty method sounds like an advertisement for a 21st century business. Harper used all organic ingredients in her products and thought chemical hair dye was dangerous. She believed that beauty comes from within and is based on good health.

Click on the LISTEN link above to hear why Plitt, author of three Harper biographies, believes Harper's story has been lost to history. Plitt also talks about what happened to Harper's business, what today's business owners can learn from Harper, and more.

Plitt is hosting the launch of her paperback, "Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business,"  at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Rochester Museum & Science Center.

Plitt also has a luncheon presentation on the importance of Harper to Rochester scheduled from noon to 1:30 p.m. Thursday at St. John Fisher College’s School of Business.