Excerpt: Bonds of Union, by Bridget Ford

Bonds of Union cover imageThis 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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.”[14] 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.[15]

Skilled in her profession as a hairdresser, Potter gained access to the private dressing rooms of Cincinnati’s most elite women. There, Potter established white bourgeois women’s claims to beauty and instructed them in the style of femininity appropriate to their upper-class status. She was emphatic on this point: but for her labors, the entire facade of white women’s beauty might well fall to pieces. As evidence, she offered this delicious bit of gossip: the “most beautiful” woman among the exclusive social set at Saratoga, Potter revealed, “was certainly the ugliest woman I ever saw, in undress.”[16] The private boudoir was a place of physical transformation managed by professional women like Potter, and A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life reminds readers of her clients’ dependence on her for their stylish appearances.[17] But Potter’s occupation entailed much more than combing and setting hair or pulling together a fashionable look for day promenading and fancy balls. She rather aimed at the moral education of her clients, women who frequently lost sight of genuine human worth and respectability in their “anxious” quest “to get into a circle they considered a little higher than they occupied.” To her disgust, status-seeking women would “crouch and bend, wire in and out, to get in” to ever more exclusive society.[18] As Potter reflected on her career in A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, her real calling was to instruct troubled and hypocritical clients in the tenets of true gentility.[19]

Potter therefore did not pride herself on mere emulation of well-bred white Americans’ refined standards. Early portions of A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life described her extended stays in Paris and London. In France she attended the Count of Paris’s christening and the Duke of Orleans’s funeral; she walked through exquisite gardens in Paris and Versailles; she attended “concerts, balls, hippodromes, theaters, operas, and fetes champetre, without number.” She learned French. In England, Potter saw Prince Albert “lay the corner-stone of the Royal Exchange,” participated in services at Saint Paul’s Church, and witnessed the baptism of the Prince of Wales.[20] These experiences allowed Potter to trump most white Americans’ social breeding by suggesting that she had learned gentility from its original practitioners: European nobility. Back in the United States, Potter deployed the polished manners and etiquette demanded in high society so well that she patrolled the borders of gentility herself, securing invitations for favored clients to parties and exposing others’ violations of genteel codes.[21] In her autobiography, Potter stands as the genuine knowledge broker and white women as her undisciplined, coarsened students. “I feel sometimes like a lily in the midst of many poisonous weeds,” she rued.[22]

Potter boasted, moreover, that she might well outshine white women in beauty and fashion—and hence in a certain kind of power—if she chose to do so. After a railroad fire destroyed her trunks while en route to Saratoga, Potter sought reimbursement for her expensive clothing. The railroad’s officials “seemed all perfectly astonished at the list of my clothes,” she wrote: “Mr. F. was aghast at the idea of my paying thirty-five dollars for a moire antique dress, and said his wife never had a dress cost so much. . . . [W]hen Mr. F. came, on the list, to a velvet basquine trimmed with deep fringe, he seemed to think it was an impossibility. . . . One of them seemed quite horrified at the very idea of my having ten silk dresses with me; but it afforded me a good deal of pleasure to let him know I had as many more at home.” Concluding that these “underlings” would not offer her the settlement she deserved, Potter determined to see the railroad’s president. Upon gaining entrance to his office, she “found him a perfect gentleman, in every sense of the word, and he seemed to wish to do what was right.” She left his office with a fair settlement, hoping that the officials would “remember it is not the dog that is chained up the tightest, and makes the most noise, [that] does the most biting.” Potter used artful diplomacy to make her way through a largely white social world: skilled in manipulating the signs of gentility and fluent in its discourse, she seldom failed to accomplish her goals when dealing with polite men and women. While Potter rejected invidious distinctions based on either race or class, she nevertheless placed enormous stock in courteous behavior as a salve for her society’s ills, including slavery, giving civility nearly equal billing with Christian belief: “I like every person . . . who treat all people right, regardless of nation, station, or color; and all men and women who love their Redeemer.” “Manners and principle” constituted her uncomplicated recipe for social order and harmony.[23] At least in her autobiography, she does not seem to consider whether poverty precluded participation in a social contract based, at least in part, on a particular style of behavior and appearance.

Still, Potter was a working woman, an entrepreneur in the nation’s early fashion and beauty industry, and she took pride in her labor. This afforded her a certain authority to critique her female employers, whose lack of meaningful activity generated unique forms of misery. Although nineteenth-century sentimentalists typically cast the poor as the most deserving recipients of pity and compassion, Potter found an equal quotient of suffering among the rich. As she explained, “My avocation calls me into the upper classes of society almost exclusively; and there reign as many elements of misery as the world can produce. No one need go into alleys to hunt up wretchedness; they can find it in perfection among the rich and fashionable of every land and nation.” With privileged access to private boudoirs, Potter discovered plenty of characters deserving of her pity. She witnessed domestic abuse, criminality, mental illness, debauchery, avariciousness, and sheer stupidity. For the victims of these misfortunes and perfidies, Potter professed genuine sympathy. When an adulterous husband committed his wife—who was also Potter’s client—to an insane asylum, Potter “burst into heartfelt tears, and . . . wept freely.” “I never shall forget her look, should I live a century,” she wrote.[24] By weeping for the suffering rich, Potter reversed the sentimental codes of feeling. This reversal reinforced her most poignant argument: white women depended on Potter for their sense of well-being and worth far more than she on them.

To what degree did her clients and, by extension, the reading public, accept the claim of their dependence? Her clients, of course, paid her well, called on her night and day for her services, and frequently relied on her to gain entrée to higher social circles. These women implicitly understood their dependence on Potter for their gentility, beauty, and social identity. As for the broader public, a remarkable editorial exchange in the city’s daily newspapers debating the merits of A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life allows insight into public reception of Potter’s claims. Carried on over four days following the book’s publication, the vituperative debate—with one editor lauding the narrative’s “astonishingly acute insight” and the other dismissing it as the shoddy work of an “incompetent and vulgar person”—displayed agreement on one central point: Potter had demystified beauty’s power.[25] “Before her graphic narrative,” one sympathetic editor wrote, “as before the spear of Ithuriel, the illusions that becloud the common fancy, disappear like dew before the orb of day; the aroma of divinity with which, aided by imagination, art, French fabrics and perfumery, we are in the habit of investing the lovely creatures in whose sweet faces all the virtues seem to be reflected, is dissipated to return no more forever.”[26] It was clear, wrote the Daily Gazette’s editor, that Potter was the “power behind the throne” of the city’s self-appointed aristocracy and the source of its enchanting beauty.[27] A harsh and unyielding view of A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life appeared in the Daily Commercial, which attacked Potter as an “African Abigail” and her book as so much “silly and egregious trash.” In Potter’s regrettable “blazoning [of] private relations to the world, we are forced to take note of [her book] as an impertinence and an imposition.” This editor did not generally dispute the veracity of Potter’s claims, only that her book “amounted to a wanton violation” for having exposed “private” affairs to a scandal-seeking audience. Taken as a whole, the editorial debate lays bare a public recognition of the artifice of white femininity. Yet that a black woman was so obviously and centrally “behind the scenes” in generating white women’s beauty and social influence was a point taken with no little controversy. Potter’s own claims to respectability were thus impugned by the Daily Commercial. Labeling her an “impudent pretender,” the paper’s editor takes Potter to task for her imagining more than a purely service role for herself: “To have been elevated to the high honor of dressing a lady’s hair, is here made a license for publicly assuming the office of the arbiter of her character, the critic [of] her person, and the censor of her morals.” Potter failed to recognize her “place” and true dependence on white women for her position, and more fundamentally, she lacked the right to determine the nature of her own labor, according to the Daily Commercial.[28] That Potter had earned enough wealth to place her squarely within the middle, if not upper-middle class well before publishing her controversial book in 1859 seemed to contradict this point. Whether or not she anticipated such a backlash in publishing A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, Potter apparently felt secure enough in her indispensability to white women’s beauty project to offer a revealing portrait of her employers’ dependence on her for their appearance and prestige.


From BONDS OF UNION: RELIGION, RACE, AND POLITICS IN A CIVIL WAR BORDERLAND by Bridget Ford.  Copyright ©  2016 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Bridget Ford is associate professor of history at California State University, East Bay.

  1. [1]Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 89.
  2. [2]On the artisanship involved in women’s clothing, see Amneus, Separate Sphere.
  3. [3]Santamarina, “Introduction,” in Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, xix–xxii.
  4. [4]Burckin, appendix 7 and appendix 2 in “Formation and Growth of an Urban Middle Class,” 641–42, 634.
  5. [5]Burckin, appendix 12 in ibid., 650–52.
  6. [6]Aubespin et al., Two Centuries of Black Louisville, 58.
  7. [7]Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom, 132–34, appendix 5, 209.
  8. [8]Aaron, Cincinnati, Queen City, 55.
  9. [9]Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom, 117.
  10. [10]Ibid., 103–4.
  11. [11]Burckin, appendix 12 in “Formation and Growth of an Urban Middle Class,” 650.
  12. [12]Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom, 133–35, appendix 18, 221.
  13. [13]On the regional dimensions of barbering, and the somewhat more hospitable environment of the upper South for black barbers, see Bristol, Knights of the Razor, 71–79, 105–6.
  14. [14]Santamarina, “Introduction,” in Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, xiv–xvii; Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, 55.
  15. [15]For evidence of her work in social reform circles, see Managers of the Colored Orphan Asylum, Eleventh Annual Report. This report listed Eliza Potter as both a manager and a solicitor for the asylum.
  16. [16]Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, 35.
  17. [17]Santamarina, Belabored Professions, 103–5.
  18. [18]Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, 170.
  19. [19]Santamarina, Belabored Professions, 112–20.
  20. [20]Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, 10–14.
  21. [21]Santamarina, “Introduction,” in ibid., xx. Santamarina provides an analysis of Potter’s “inside outsider” status.
  22. [22]Potter, Hairdresser’s Experience, 124.
  23. [23]Ibid., 57, 63, 150, 163.
  24. [24]Ibid., 1, 156.
  25. [25]Santamarina, “Appendix B,” in ibid., 184 and 194, and 183–97 generally.
  26. [26]Ibid., 184.
  27. [27]Ibid., 187.
  28. [28]Ibid., 194, 196–97, 192.