We have great respect for census enumerators, for it is a job we could never, ever do. Tramping down a crowded street, knocking on every door, bravely stepping over rats
would bring such discouragement and despair about the human condition that we would forget to count the babies. As a genealogist, of course, we are awash with gratitude that the census has been taken and all of those babies not only counted but named.
The taking of a nation-wide census of individuals, les recensements or les dénombrements, began in France in 1836 and has been repeated every five years since then, except when locally fought wars disrupted the scheduling (the Franco-Prussian War and the two World Wars). And then there was Paris, where census-taking did not begin before 1926. One imagines that the thought of trying to visit all those homes, as described above, was too dreadful for any bureaucrat to contemplate. Perhaps it was Haussmann's ripping out of half the warreny streets and most of the medieval city that made the Paris census possible?
There are further local oddities and lacunae:
- in Paris, the censuses are divided by arrondissement, then by neighbourhood or quartier within the arrondissement, then alphabetically by street name. Having a good Paris street guide before beginning is a help.
- there was an earlier census, in 1831, but it was not a success in terms of logic and organisation, and little of this census has been digitized or even, in some cases, preserved.
- some departments, such as Savoie, have census records -- in some form or other -- going back to the 16th century
- the departments that were integrated with France in 1860 -- Savoie, Haute-Savoie, and Alpes-Maritimes -- do not have the standard French census forms before that date.
- the departments that were a part of Germany from 1871 to 1919 -- Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle -- do not have the French censuses for those years but do have German census records.
The censuses give, for each city, town or village, by street and by household, information about each of the inhabitants. The information is thus arranged by location, and not by surname. The forms used for each census differed slightly from year to year. Common to them all are:
- the address of the household
- the surname and first names for each individual (married women's surnames are their maiden names)
- the profession of each person
- some way of knowing the age of each person
- notes or observations (the best part)
Little variations of some years include:
- the person's residence at the previous census - 1962 onward
- whether the person is owner or employee at his or her place of work - 1901 through 1936
- marital status, e.g. whether single, married divorced or widowed - 1836 through 1876
- the person's place in the household - 1881 onward
- the age - 1836, then 1846 through 1901
- year or date of birth - 1906 onward
- place of birth - 1872, 1876, then 1906 through 1946
- nationality - 1851, 1872, 1876, then 1886 onward
- religion - 1851
- illnesses or infirmities - 1851
Where to find the census returns
The census returns are held in the Departmental Archives and possibly also the municipal archives of the department and city where they were taken. In the Departmental Archives, the code is series 6M. In municipal archives, they are under series F. Increasingly, they are online on the websites of the Departmental Archives (check the panel to the left). There is no central index to or search engine for all of the names in all of the nation's censuses.
Access to the personal data from the census returns is permitted only for those censuses taken more than seventy-five years ago. Thus, the censuses that may currently be seen are those of 1931 and earlier.
As they are located in Departmental Archives and arranged by location, one could go mad trying to find an ancestor via the census returns, so we strongly recommend against that. Once a name, date and location are certain, however, the census can be a very useful tool for :
- seeing a family as a whole
- discovering extended family who are often neighbours
- learning a wife's maiden name
- discovering children who did not survive to adulthood
- learning more about individuals from the answers to all those nosey questions
Context is everything in historical work. To help put the census information found about any French ancestors in the late nineteenth century into context, we have found a fine population density map for France in the year 1887 on the World Digital Library.
©2010 Anne Morddel