This vivid history of the Civil War era reveals how unexpected bonds of union forged among diverse peoples in the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands furthered emancipation through a period of spiraling chaos between 1830 and 1865. Moving beyond familiar arguments about Lincoln’s deft politics or regional commercial ties, Bridget Ford recovers the potent religious, racial, and political attachments holding the country together at one of its most likely breaking points, the Ohio River.
In the following excerpt from Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland (pp. 124-130), Ford reveals the lives of black service workers in Cincinnati and Louisville, featuring the story of hairdresser Eliza Potter.
It was one thing to read an advice book but quite another to implement its vision of modish appearances and conduct, however much fashion magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book promoted “simple and unobtrusive” styles reflecting a woman’s inner worth and justifying her claims to respectability. Although far less fussy than romantic dress and hair of the 1830s, women’s fashions popular during the next two decades—labeled “Victorian” or “sentimental” today—remained sophisticated, expensive, and time consuming to construct. In Cincinnati and Louisville, African American hairdressers and dressmakers employed by white elite women, as well as barbers catering to a white male clientele, created prosperous businesses with the steady demand for their services after 1840. While “working class,” these skilled black laborers enjoyed substantial prestige among other African Americans and became arbiters of style among whites. Even more, they coached, and sometimes admonished, white clients who failed to put together the whole package of genteel appearance and morally upright behavior suitable to their class aspirations.
In Cincinnati and Louisville, the height of black dominance in personal services for a white clientele appears to have been around 1850, before skilled workers from Ireland, Germany, and other European countries began to compete in the dressmaking and barbering trades. At midcentury, fully 55 percent of all barbers in Louisville were African American, and it was the second most frequently listed occupation in the 1850 census after “laborer.” By 1860, the percentage of barbers who were black had dropped to 34 percent, but as a class they controlled far more wealth in real and personal property than any other occupational category among African Americans. In 1860, census takers drew a finer picture of women’s occupations; as a consequence, two hairdressers, both African American, appeared in Louisville’s census for the first time, as did two dressmakers and a number of seamstresses. In Cincinnati, 136 black men worked as barbers, a larger number than in any other occupation. The number of black barbers dropped to 118 by 1860 but was surpassed only by the number of African American steamboat workers. As in Louisville, the livelihoods to be made from skilled dressmaking and hairdressing drew Cincinnati’s entrepreneurial black women into these occupational niches. Two black dressmakers appeared in the 1850 census, while nineteen African American women reported doing such work in 1860, along with close to one hundred skilled or semiskilled seamstresses. That same census year, four black women claimed the profession of hairdresser.
Clearly, this kind of skilled work remained exceptional for black women who were otherwise relegated to menial and physically demanding labor, such as “washerwoman,” but the 1840s and 1850s did mark a departure for African Americans who now could claim their own kind of elite status based on successful enterprises catering to a white bourgeois and middle-class clientele. This stands in marked contrast to Daniel Aaron’s depiction of the place of black laborers prior to 1840: “At the bottom” of the economic scale, Aaron wrote, “forming a kind of lowest helot class and exploited by all, are the hated, disfranchised blacks.” Aaron’s bleak assessment, as Nikki Taylor has argued, does not reflect the deep sense of accomplishment many of Cincinnati’s African Americans expressed after 1841, when they made a concerted “decision to stand and fight” for homes, schools, churches, and fledgling businesses, which they believed offered some reasonable hope of individual upward mobility and community well-being.
After 1840, the most successful of Cincinnati’s and Louisville’s black businesses, and the source of charitable underwriting for churches and schools, were barbershops serving white male customers. Despite the service nature of the work, barbering, along with women’s hairdressing and dressmaking, potentially offered African Americans steady incomes, as well as a measure of respectability. In the two decades before the Civil War, Louisville’s barbers were consistently among the top black wage earners, with two barbers alone owning the greatest property holdings in 1860, amounting to a combined value of $36,450. In 1850, twenty-one black barbers in Cincinnati reported real estate worth over $50,000, and in 1860, a larger number of forty-three barbers still held onto real and personal property worth some $48,000, despite new competition from European immigrants. Dressmakers and hairdressers were among the city’s wealthiest African American women, with one dressmaker owning $2,000 in property and Eliza Potter, the city’s most well-known hairdresser by virtue of her skill and the publication of a revealing professional autobiography, had an estate valued at $2,400. These service occupations were by no means guarantees of wealth, and a number of African American barbers, hairdressers, and dressmakers all earned considerably less than their highest-paid peers, but until the 1860s, African Americans maintained a professional monopoly in these fields. Those black Americans working in personal services fared much better economically than their unskilled compatriots and ultimately formed a middle-class nucleus for Cincinnati’s and Louisville’s African American communities.
For the urban Ohio River valley, the richest source of evidence about African Americans’ personal service work derives from Eliza Potter’s singular autobiography, A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, published in Cincinnati in 1859. Born in New York, Potter moved to Cincinnati as a young woman in 1834. She worked as a child’s nurse in several wealthy white households and accompanied one family to Paris in 1841. After a dispute over wages, Potter left the family to learn the art of hairdressing. Returning to the United States after traveling and working in both France and England, she built a successful career dressing wealthy clients whom she dubbed “our aristocracy.” While maintaining a home in Cincinnati, Potter traveled widely—to Saratoga, New Orleans, Memphis, and New York City—earning her living. She eventually settled in Cincinnati in the 1840s, where she contributed to humanitarian projects, including the building and running of an orphanage for black children.
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