Why everyone should know about Martha Matilda Harper, but few do

Adam Interviews

Rochester, N.Y. (WROC) — The story goes that through McDonald’s, Ray Kroc created modern franchising.

But that story is wrong.

Kroc was beat to the punch by a woman from Rochester, who built a 500-store empire through franchising decades before McDonald’s served its first burger.

Martha Matilda Harper’s story should be the stuff of legend, but it’s not.

Not yet anyway.

Jane Plitt, who is also from Rochester, is hoping to put Harper’s name up on the wall of revolutionary entrepreneurs where it belongs.

To do that, she’s written a biography titled, “Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business.”

Plitt was in town recently to shoot a documentary with Arte, a German-French public television station, about Harper, but she took time to sit down with Adam Chodak to talk about Harper, the documentary and her own impressive life.

You can read the interview below and watch it here:

Adam Chodak: You really became a voice after you had applied to become a page with a lawmaker, that person said, “I’m sorry, we can’t.”

Jane Plitt: Senator Jacob Javits said he would have loved to have me as a page in the U.S. Senate but that women were not allowed, girls were not allowed to be pages at that time. At the time I thought that’s strange, but it didn’t get to my gut until I came to Rochester after graduating from the Cornell School of Labor Relations and I was the first female in that field and I couldn’t have lunch with my male colleagues because they would eat at men’s-only grills, at the Manhattan or at Sibley’s and a woman was not allowed in there and I was like, “this is not right, there’s something fundamentally wrong here,” and that was the time of the second wave of awareness among women for women’s rights and how appropriate, in Rochester, to have that awakening.

AC: So now you have this whole recognition that something is wrong, what did you decide to do about it?

JP: I with other people, both men and women, joined the local chapter of the National Organization for Women and we began to say the law is on our side and so a whole group of us basically decided that we were going to have an eat-in and we did bring the media with us and insisted on being served and that began to change what had just been the accepted discriminatory status quo and then a number of us,we were ambitious young women and we saw that the Rochester Jaycees was the youngest, the way for young people to demonstrate leadership skills and to hone them and unfortunately it was for young men under 36 and at the time because of the field I was in I knew that there was a federal executive order that organizations with big government contracts could not discriminate on gender so we pointed out to the leadership of the Jaycees that it would be a shame if their chapter, which was the largest in the world, underwritten by Bausch & Lomb and Kodak and Xerox and the like found out they were jeopardizing their government contracts. They ended up changing their bylaws with the support of people like Senator Javits and the like and the Rochester Chamber, but the problem was the U.S. Jaycees threw the Rochester chapter out. That ended up being appealed and cases like it also went before the Supreme Court and today the Kiwanis, the Rotaries, the Jaycees all admit women as full members.

AC: How did you find out about Martha Matilda Harper?

JP: At the time First National Bank was the new owner of the Powers Building and they were renovating the building, they hired my consulting firm to attract the public interest in the grand opening and since I knew everyone had a story linked to that building I created a history gallery and asked the public just to share stories, memorabilia, photographs linked to the building. One of the artifacts that was shared was a little clipping that said the first beauty salon Rochester was created by Martha Matilda Harper who ended up being the first woman member of the Chamber of Commerce. I called the Chamber. I was intrigued. I’m a businesswoman and in fact president of the Small Business Council of the Chamber and say tell me who this first woman Chamber member was and they said we are clueless, but when you find out let me know. Well, that’s really the wrong thing to say to me so I thought I am going to find out only I couldn’t but I was on an assignment that took me to Washington D.C., I went to the Library of Congress and embraced a librarian and said help me find something out about her and spent two hours and she wasn’t to be found except that he did find there was a NYT obituary in 1950, 2 columns about Martha Matilda Harper and her worldwide empire, as a franchising pioneer, Susan B. Anthony and British Royalty all being her customers and I’m reading this and thinking wow somebody should write her story, but I was a businesswoman, I was not a historian at that time, but she nestled into my brain or my heart or both and I couldn’t get her out of my head because I kept saying if it was that hard for me to find that little out who the heck is ever going to find out about her so I thought, what the heck. I started to try to research her and what I thought would take 6 months took 6 years because so little unfortunately was recorded that it took traveling across the United States and Canada and contacting family members, but also that devoted Harper network, people who had worked for her and it turned out that one of the owners of the Harper shop here in Rochester who had left for Wisconsin had also preserved cartons of artifacts after the Harper empire was sold in 1972. So when I reached Betty Wheeler in Wisconsin I said I’m interested in telling her story she said what took you so long. She still had those cartons that she had saved and I don’t know if you’ve ever moved, but it’s remarkable she didn’t dump the stuff.

AC: So you write the biography of Martha Matilda Harper. Not only was she an entrepreneur, she had a salon that catered to royalty, that catered to celebrities, she then pioneered franchising all this after a third of her life was spent in indentured servitude.

JP: Exactly. So what we know is that she represents inspiration for anyone, male, female, immigrant who has a dream and pursues it and as you suggested it took her 25 years to overcome her servitude, but she was clever enough to be able to capitalize on the asset of having been a servant and by that I mean if you were a servant for that long you really know how to please people and you understand that that’s your job so when she goes into this new business of opening a beauty salon for women, number one is I have to delight the customer. Well if you’re going to go into business that involves washing hair she had to make sure they didn’t get soap in their eyes or that she didn’t mess their finery so she invents the reclining shampoo chair. All of this seems incredible but I think it was because she was a servant and she starts thinking logically of what are the steps in order to delight them. Well that reclining shampoo chair that all of us use today sure works and it was like Wegmans today, out of town people had to be taken to the Harper shop because this was something to experience.

AC: What does it say that someone so revolutionary with such a significant story didn’t have a lot of literature about them?

JP: What it says is history is written by those in power and if in general historians and business leaders are men then they’re going to focus on the story. The BBC recently did a story about Ray Kroc and McDonald’s and saying that he was really the catalyst to franchising. Now at the very end of the story they say, while it is true that Martha Matilda Harper 70 years ahead of Crock had invented this system and ha 500 shops around the world, but the world didn’t follow therefore Ray Kroc should deserve the credit and that’s like, no wait a minute, if someone invents a vaccine and the world is foolish enough not to use it does that mean the person who invented the vaccine isn’t the creator? I think unfortunately that’s what it’s going to take is that people begin to look around and say whose stories have we missed.

AC: The reason you’re in town right now is for a very special reason…

JP: Yes, Arte which is a German and French PBS equivalent of a broadcast station came across my book and they decided that the French and the German folks need to know about her story on a program called invitation to travel and they focus in on unique stories around the world encouraging Europeans visit. So, Rochester and Martha Matilda Harper and yesterday the Arte film crew arrived and we traveled the steps that Martha took, coming in across Lake Ontario and by the port and waved to the Charlotte-Genesee lighthouse and then we came down by High Falls and the Powers Building and the headquarters on E. Main and at Rochester Museum and Science Center so that they could document the wonderful story of Martha Matilda Harper.

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