Eliza Potter scandalized Cincinnati when she published a book that, as they used to say, “told tales out of school” about high-society in Cincinnati. This was shockingly unexpected for any number of reasons. To begin with, Eliza was African American. When she published her book, in 1859, most African Americans were enslaved. In many states, it was illegal to teach an African American how to read and write. Eliza had access to the city’s upper crust because she was in demand as a hair dresser at a time when women’s hair took hours to get right. Eliza had skills, and she had a prodigious memory.
She was born Eliza Johnson around 1820 in Cincinnati, maybe. It’s possible she only claimed to be born here to hide her actual birth in Virginia and her family’s escape to New York, where she was raised. Throughout most of her career she was unattached, but she had been married at some point. She is listed as “Mrs.” in the city directories and had at least two children. Her goal was to travel, to see the world, and she traveled a lot—from Louisville to New Orleans to England to the Saratoga Resorts. Perhaps her most permanent address was in Cincinnati, where she lived on three separate occasions, once spending at least five years at a single residence just off Fourth Street near Elm.
Eliza’s clients required her services from as early as 8 a.m. to as late as midnight on nights of society balls. As she worked on their hair, the women either gossiped with Eliza or with other women in the room. Eliza heard everything. She saw everything as well. After watching women in Paris and London abstaining from food at most social functions, the gluttony of Cincinnati appalled her.
I have known ladies here, particularly in Cincinnati, take two or three sets of handkerchiefs, and not only carry away cakes and candy, but actually game. I have known them to do worse than even that.
The reader gets the impression that Cincinnati society was much like a wasp nest, with the grandes dames ready to sting at any moment.
Affairs in our Queen City are not managed as they used to be; for I remember the time when a lady would never for a moment think of speaking disparagingly of another in any way; but now the ladies have got a habit of talking about others to make themselves grand; they pick to pieces and talk about every lady they know; some will talk to their hair-dresser, and some to their milliner or dressmaker, about Mrs. or Miss This-or-That, and pick her to pieces.
Sometimes, Eliza reported, society ladies went to extremes to put someone in their place, or to remind them that they had their place.
One morning I was going very early to comb a lady for her marriage, who was going off on the early train, and on passing along the street I saw hanging on the knob of a lady’s door, an old dress, with needles, thimble, spools of cotton, scissors and everything belonging to a dress-maker. I made inquiry a few days after and heard it was done by a neighbor, who thought the lady had forgotten her mother’s occupation, so that she might be reminded from what she had sprung.
Eliza’s rapier is unsheathed for visitors as well as natives. Apparently, women from the East Coast had only a dim idea of what life was like out here on the western frontier.
The eastern ladies think there is a great deal of wealth out west and they wish to come and take part. I often laugh at them when they come to Cincinnati, as after dashing around a little they find the people are not so green, nor are wealthy husbands so easily picked up as they think for. I have often seen ladies from New York, who moved in a pretty good circle at home, struck with perfect astonishment on entering some of our parlors here.
Still, Eliza was reminded continually that members of her race endured situations she could only imagine. In her conversations with clients and their husbands, she never failed to state her case.
They began a conversation with me on slavery, which is, with me, a very exciting topic, and I would much rather hold a conversation on any other subject; but, being dragged into it, I did not fail to express my opinion.
When a foreign prince came to Cincinnati to raise funds for a European cause, Eliza could hardly contain herself.
We have millions of slaves to look to in our country, which is a curse to it; and before we go abroad to pluck the mote out of our brethren’s eye, let us pick the beam out of our own eye.
At times, Potter’s “excitement” about slavery inspired action. She recounts three months imprisonment in Louisville while she successfully fought a charge that she encouraged a Kentucky slave to seek his freedom in Canada.
Eliza’s book received favorable reviews when it was published. The Cincinnati Gazette [October 19, 1859] was particularly appreciative:
The fact that no man is a hero to his valet has become a portion of the proverbial philosophy of nearly every spoken tongue, and to the thoughtful mind it is no less apparent that even the fairest of her sex is not a heroine in the eyes of her hairdresser. The most obstinate skeptic must throw down the weapons of his unbelief, when to the voice of reason are joined the revelations of a volume which has just seen the light in this city.
A couple of years after her book was published, Eliza moved back to New York, and it appears she died there in the 1890s. You can find her book online as a free download and it’s still a fun read about Cincinnati society.