Monday, March 22, 2021

Beauty Culture and the Rise of the Hair Salon

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist


In 1895, Joannie De Liebertie launched her business as Elmira’s first French hair dresser. Known as “Dutch Annie,” she worked out of the Italian boarding house she ran with her husband at 104 W. Church Street. At the time, she was one of two dedicated hair dressers in the city. Neither woman ran what we would now think of as a salon. Instead, they worked out of their homes or made house calls, especially for wealthier clients. They were at the forefront of a rapidly expanding industry.

The first hair salon in the United States was opened in Rochester, New York in 1888 by Martha Matilda Harper (1857-1950). Traditionally, women’s hair dressing had been done in the home by servants, visiting hairdressers, or family members. The Harper Method Hair Parlour was designed to resemble a men’s barbershop with multiple work stations and places for clients to sit and socialize while they waited. Harper offered not only haircuts and stylings, but also shampooing using her own special formula. She even invented the first reclining salon chair and had specially designed sinks for hair-washing. In 1891, she authorized what would become the first of many franchise shops in Buffalo, New York. At the time of her death in 1950, there were 350 Harper Method Hair Parlours across the United States and Canada. The first hair salon in Elmira, Myers & O’Connor, opened in the Masonic Building at 205 Lake Street in 1908. It was not a Harper franchise, but it had many of the same hallmarks. A Harper franchise did eventually open here in 1919 in the Snyder Building run by Minnie F. Jones.

Newspaper ad for the local Harper franchise, 1919


The hair and beauty salon industry really took off in the 1920s. Elmira went from having just 12 hair dressers in 1920 to having 42 beauty shops in 1930. The changing name is important. Beauty shops didn’t just offer haircuts, they also offered shampooing, dying, permanents, manicures, and massage. It was during this period that beauty schools took off too.

Traditionally, hairdressers learned the trade through apprenticeship, assuming they didn’t just jump right in. That began to change in the early 20th century. In 1908, Madam C.J. Walker, aka Sarah Breedlove Walker (1867-1919), established Lelia College to train Black women in the art of haircare. Walker became America’s first female self-made millionaire after developing a line of hair-care and cosmetic products designed specifically for Black women. At Lelia College, she not only trained women in the use of her products, but also provided classes on budgeting and small business management. During the 1920s, Martha Harper also opened a series of beauty schools in the United States and Canada to train people in her methods. Locally, the Del Kader School of Beauty Culture, located at 158 Fox Street, offered classes on beauty culture including hair care, make-up, manicure, and massage from 1925 to 1939. Throughout the 1930s, several beauty salons also offered apprenticeship programs including Bailey’s Beauty Shop, Boston Beauty Shoppe, Cornelia Beauty Shop, and Gem Beauty Shop. Ads for the course at Bailey’s promised that entrants in the summer term could be earning a wage by fall. The Boston Beauty Shoppe promised to help students open their own shop. 

Students & staff of Del Kader School of Beauty Culture, ca 1930s


For many women, the beauty industry offered a way out of poverty. Harper and Walker had both worked as domestic servants before getting into the business. Both tried to help improve the lives of other women like them by helping them gain financial independence. Harper’s first 100 franchises were given to former servants and factory girls, often with Harper loaning franchisees the funds for upfront costs. Walker established a scholarship fund in her daughter’s name to help finance the educations of promising Black students. In 1917, the Walker scholarship fund gave the Elmira NAACP $75 to distribute to local students.


During the course of writing this, I discovered that we do not have any pictures of beauty salons or hair shops in our collections. If you have interior or exterior photos of any area beauty shop, we would love to have them. Stop on by or give me a call at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207 if you’d like to donate.

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