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Published by EH.Net and H-Business (August 2002)

Jane R. Plitt, Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman

Changed the Face of Modern Business. New York: Syracuse University Press,

2000. ix-184 pp. $26.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8156-0638-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET and H-Business by Sheila L. Skemp, Department of History,

University of Mississippi.

Jane Plitt’s slim volume focuses on three different but interrelated themes.

First, this is a biography. It uncovers the story of the woman behind the

“Harper Method,” following her as she escaped her poverty-stricken family in

northern Canada, traveled to New York, and became one of the premier business

women of her day. Martha Harper’s life embodied most of the characteristics of

the classic Horatio Alger myth. Indeed, Plitt sees her as “a female Horatio

Alger.” (p. 3) Born in 1875, the daughter of an abusive, ne’er do well dreamer,

she was bound out to servitude when she was only seven. Like a Horatio Alger

hero, she had “luck” as well as “pluck.” When she was twelve, she went to work

for a physician, who shared his secret formula with her — a hair tonic that

would make hair and scalp both healthy and beautiful. Armed with this knowledge

and 60 silver dollars, Harper left Canada at the age of 25, settling in

Rochester New York, where she went to work once more as a servant — this time

for a prominent attorney, Luther Hovey, and his wife Charlotte. There she

adopted the Christian Science religion and, relying on the contacts the Hoveys

provided her, acquired an office in the Powers Building, “the showpiece” of

downtown Rochester. (p. 24) From these inauspicious beginnings, she launched an

international corporation that she ran until the 1930s.

Harper’s story is a compelling one. Yet the biography is the weakest portion of

the book. Pitt relies too heavily — perhaps because she had no other choice —

on “official” and often suspect company sources. Moreover, the narrative is

dotted with qualifiers — “probably,” “perhaps,” and “may have” — which

indicate that too many of Pitt’s assumptions are based on plausible guess work

rather than hard fact.

The book also offers a gendered interpretation of Harper’s achievements. It

describes the difficulties that women once had in establishing themselves and

being taken seriously in the business world. Pitt argues that had Harper been a

man, she would be ranked among the leading innovators of business practices in

her day. She also maintains that Harper’s determination to foster a sense of

community among her employees was a tactic that a woman would be particularly

likely to embrace. While suffragists talked about women’s capabilities, Harper

quietly turned real women into strong and capable entrepreneurs. For her,

women’s leadership in her company was not accidental; it was essential.

“Dismissing the traditional capitalist competitive approach of

“owner-take-all,” Harper emphasized the values of cooperation and mutual

support, shared her profits with other women, changed her employees’ lives and

gave her “girls” real financial security and personal freedom. (p. 5) Pitt’s

analysis here is solid — albeit somewhat hagiographic — but it tells us

nothing new about the problems women faced in the late nineteenth and early

twentieth centuries.

Finally, Pitt analyzes Harper’s contributions to the world of business,

stressing her innovative, even visionary techniques, techniques that have

become commonplace in the modern world. The “Harper Method” was, in fact,

virtually identical with the modern franchise system. At its peak, it included

a worldwide network of shops, owned by individual “Harperites” — mostly

working class women — who ran their businesses following the dictates of

Martha Harper. The Harper system “integrated recruitment, training, and job

placement. It offered a soup-to-nuts system of indoctrination, skill building,

and ownership.” (p. 117) Harper trained the women, taught them how to market

their goods, how to treat their customers, and how to maintain a high and

consistent quality of service. She occasionally introduced new “scientific”

products and techniques to the Harperites, and required them to take occasional

refresher courses so that they would continue to represent the company in the

best possible manner. Perhaps because of her Christian Science faith, she

emphasized healthy — rather than simply beautiful — hair. For that reason she

eschewed the use of the hair dyes (unless they were organic) and permanents

that became increasingly popular after World War II. Unlike her contemporaries,

Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, she tried to steer clear of business

strategies that targeted the middle class, and democratized the beauty

industry. She was not interested in persuading her customers that beauty was

possible for any woman for the price of a few cosmetics. For Harper, health was

the basis of beauty; externally applied products were mass produced facades

designed to hide rather than enhance a woman’s assets.

While Harper was ahead of her times in some ways, she represented a bygone era

in others. She may have empowered working class women; yet she sought only

elite women as customers. Even during the depression, she told “her girls” to

continue charging upscale prices, hoping to differentiate her business from

those led by others in the beauty industry. She wanted her goods and services

to be better, not cheaper.

In the 1930s, when Harper’s mental and physical health declined, and her

husband Robert MacBain gradually assumed control of the business, it became

increasingly clear that Harper had not built a business that could go on

without her. MacBain abandoned many of her core principles, adopting a more

“masculine” strategy, and the enterprise lost much of its distinctiveness. He

stressed outer rather than inner beauty; he allowed the use of dyes and

permanents. He did not share his wife’s determination to recruit servant girls

to run the franchises. In a sense, Martha Harper’s was more a personal than an

economic triumph, a product of her charisma and her drive. No other business

imitated the Harper Method in her era, and it died with her.

The analysis of the Harper Method is the strongest portion of Pitt’s book.

Harper was clearly an innovator in the business world. Her methods are now an

integral part of the modern economy. Yet, as Pitt points out, virtually no one

is even aware of Harper’s extraordinary achievement.

Sheila Skemp has just completed Judith Sargent Murray: A Brief Biography

With Documents, published by Bedford Press in 1998.