We have tried to impress upon people researching French ancestors that they must have three pieces of information to make a beginning: a name, a place and a date, preferably for a birth, a death or a marriage. Why, you ask? There is no centrally indexed collection of records or data available to genealogists that would enable a nation-wide, department-wide, or even municipality-wide search for a person. Many of our readers use Ancestry.com to search US federal censuses and expect to find a similar resource available for French records. No. Thus, those requests for a "Jean Martin born in France around 1800" would require a team of researchers in more than one hundred locations, searching innumerable parish records one by one. It will never happen.
Which brings us once again to the happy sleuthing through family mementos and detritus for any little hint as to whence came that French ancestor. Today, we look at coiffes, those delicately crafted lace and cotton caps that were once a lady's joy to wear, showing both her skill and her regional pride. Perhaps a home-knitted scarf of the colours of one's favourite football club would be the modern equivalent.
Like any bit of folkloric dress or traditional costume, the coiffes had styles that were unique to regions or even to specific villages. The shape, structure, materials and lace patterns all together can identify the place of the cap's origin, and thus possibly that of the wearer. The old postcard above shows some of the traditional coiffes worn in Normandy. Below is the utterly unique coiffe of the Bresse area of eastern France:
(We honestly do not know what to make of the fellow next to the coiffe wearer, or of his own coiffe. )
Should you be so lucky as to have inherited a French coiffe or a picture of your immigrant ancestor wearing one, studying it could help identify her place of origin. A few simple points to know:
- earlier coiffes tended to be made of linen, while by the end of the 19th century they were more often of cotton
- lace was always expensive; the more lace, the costlier the coiffe
- there were coiffes for different occasions, and every day coiffes
Three of the best sites we have found for further explanation are
- that of Parole et Patrimoine, which has many, many photos and pages of explanations
- that of the Musée de la vie rurale et de la coiffe, which has, in addition to photos and explanations, many good links to other sites
- the page of the Association Micarmor on the coiffes of Bretagne gives a very nice, if limited, description of that region's styles and production
It may take a bit of work and writing to experts about your coiffe, but if it yields the name of a village for where to begin your research, it will have been worth it.
©2010 Anne Morddel