The Humorous Hairstylist
In 1859, just a few years before the Civil War, a free black woman published one of the best memoirs ever.
It was called “A Hair-Dresser’s Experience in High Life” and it was written by Eliza Potter.
Years later, University of Cincinnati professor Sharon Dean would describe Eliza’s writing as full of “humor,” “ridicule,” “indignation,” “fiery temper” and “pure joie de vivre.”
So let’s meet the fabulous Eliza.
She was born in NYC but she wasn’t content to stay there.
Eliza liked to ramble and roam. She traveled the world as a hairstylist to wealthy white ladies.
She went to all the fancy places of the time:
Newport, Rhode Island.
During her travels, she worked for a lot of different families, with access to upper-class people and events that would be off-limits to most folks of the time.
She knew how the Europeans wore their hair and how the American elite threw parties.
And she used this access to her advantage in the literary sphere!
She knew this was valuable information to her readership, including the newly wealthy whites of Cincinnati, who were desperate to establish themselves as “society folk.”
So Eliza offered it all up to them in her memoir:
The latest elaborate hairstyles and jewelry and gowns.
Travel and adventure and hotels.
International etiquette and gossip.
But then, just when Eliza lured them in with the glittery outer trappings of the upper echelons—she pulled back the curtain to reveal their inner nastiness.
SURPRISE, RICH BITCHES!
As Eliza wrote:
“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.”
She had something to say about… EVERYONE.
From her rich lady clients...
To the pandering white abolitionists...
To Southern slaveowners...
Okay, basically she shittalked everyone who fucked with her, which is amazing.
Interestingly, considering this was a memoir, Eliza revealed much more about the people she encounters than she did about herself.
She talked very little about her private life and instead offered a peek behind the curtain to expose the negative qualities and shortcomings of wealthy whites.
Not only that, but in nearly every chapter, amidst the gossip and fashion advice, Eliza seamlessly wove in discussion of race.
She talked about slavery.
She told stories about enslaved black people and free black people she met on her journey.
She discussed how people of different classes and races were treated in America and Europe.
Eliza even GOT ARRESTED AND SPENT THREE MONTHS IN JAIL for assisting in the escape of an enslaved person to Canada.
HAVE YOU EVER MET A HAIRSTYLIST SO COOL?
And amidst all of this, Eliza was entertaining as HELL. She was an A+ storyteller with a humorous, conversational style. (As all good hairstylists are.)
Here are a select few of her witty one-liners:
Eliza met a woman in a hotel who seems upset and she asks why:
“She told me there was a man and woman in the next room who were not married.
I told her it would be a poor hotel if everybody was married in it.”
Eliza encountered some dodgy spiritualists who claimed to communicate with the dead, although Eliza immediately saw through their trickery:
“I told them I could raise a greater spirit than any of theirs, and stepping to the table I placed on it a bottle of old bourbon, saying, this is the only spirit that can be raised on earth.”
Spirit/spirit, I get it, good wordplay Eliza...
Eliza dressed hair for a wedding, but local boys sent a mad pig into the room in the middle of the ceremony:
“The bride and groom both roared and laughed, and even the parson could not contain his laughter. As for myself, I have witnessed scenes in America, England and France; but I never saw anything, before or since, as ludicrous as that scene.”
I mean, I’d love to see a mad pig at a wedding, wouldn’t you?
Eliza’s death was a bit of a mystery, but it is thought she passed away in her 70s in upstate New York.
Her memoir lives on as a glorious example of a funny travelogue-memoir written by a working-class, pre-Civil War black American woman.
I love Eliza and I hope you do, too!!!