Migration Patterns

Moving Away Pt 2: Finding Your Interwar Ancestors

Paris between the world wars.  Exciting.  Creative.  Cheap.  And for many Americans, a much more free place than back home.  Free of social constraints, free of sexual restrictions, and free of the oppressive racism found in the U.S. 

In this second part of our look at African American migration to Paris during the 1920s, let’s look at how to find those Jazz Age relatives!

While we’re focusing on the African American experience in this series, these research concepts apply to everyone with relatives living in Paris in the period.  The difficulties in hunting down French records seem to know no color boundaries.  The biggest difference is that the white experience in Paris is historically much more well documented. This can make finding key details needed for the research easier.  So sadly, some things are the same on both sides of the pond. 😐

We have two basic places to start your search: Census Data and Directories.

Census Data

Census Data can be a treasure trove of information…if you can find them on the census.  If you have experience in searching the U.S. Census, strap in.  As with most things involving French bureaucracy, you are going to need patience.  But it can be very rewarding once you find them! 

For this article, I decided I wouldn’t just give advice, but follow it so you can see it play out.  I don’t personally have any relatives in Paris at this time, so I chose to try to find the one and only Josephine Baker. 

How to Find People on the Census

First, a few details. The French conveniently were taking a census every 5 years in the interwar period.  For that time, there are 4 censuses available publicly:  1921, 1926, 1931, and 1936.   However, the census data for the Île-de-France Region (including Paris) is not currently indexed.  Which means we have to get creative, and, more importantly, comfy. 

The Search

Here are the basic steps to (hopefully) finding your ancestor on the census. 

Part 1 – Which Records?
  1. Locate Their Address.  This is hurdle number one.  Because the census is not indexed, you are going to have to go at it geographically.  If you have more than one address, try to narrow it down to the one closest to a census year (above).  Hopefully you have an old address book, envelope, or other document with their address.  Otherwise, you can try hunting them down through a few publications (see Directories below). 
  2. Locate the Department of the address.  France is broken into Regions (basically states) and then Departments (sort of like counties).  From there we have Communes (municipalities).  The records are usually held at the Department level. Note that France has reorganized itself a few times in the last century, just like how our counties keep changing boundaries.  So once you have the city (Commune), you can find the department.  Hopefully the commune has a wikipedia page or other website that will easily give you this information and any history you may need.
  3. Find the census records.  Good ol’ FamilySearch to the rescue!  Their France wiki has extensive information.  Scroll down to the region map and click on your region.  We are focusing exclusively on the Île-de-France Region (currently in violet) or you can scroll down to the list below the map. Once on the correct page, scroll down to the Census records. 

For Josephine, we are using her address in the department of Yvelines. Her commune is Le Vésinet, a very swanky suburb of Paris.

Part 2 – The Database

Congratulations!  You’ve made it to the records!  Grab a cup of caffeine for this next part.

  1. These are French records, so everything is in French of course.  Now is the time to set your browser to Translate French to English (Chrome is excellent for this).  Review any collection information and requested permissions/agreements and move to the search (rechercher) page. 
  2. For Yvelines, we have 3 fields we can fill out:  Current municipality, Old municipality (if different), and the year range.  If you aren’t sure, you can go big, such as 1920-1940.  Here we have the search page in English and French. 

We’ll then see the search results.  Here’s where patience pays off!  The results will come back a bit differently, depending on the department.  But in general things will be broken out geographically and then alphabetically. 

In our case, our commune–Le Vésinet–is quite small and doesn’t have any further geographic breakdowns.  We’ll dive right into the the alphabetical street names.  However, Paris for example is organized by arrondissement and then quartier and THEN by street, which will take a little extra research and map-consulting. 

In Le Vésinet, note that each listing is named by the street that the image set starts with.  And roughly the street names are alphabetized.  The exceptions can be small little allées (alleys), cours (courtyards), and passages (same in English-handy!), which seem to mostly be organized with the larger street they grow off of. 

Weirdly the results themselves are not alphabetized…
Part 3 – Success

In Josephine’s case, her address was 52 avenue Georges-Clemenceau.  When you search, drop the street type (rue, avenue, boulevard, etc.) and use the just the street name.  Don’t over think it.  Albert Joly is “A”, not J.  So Georges-Clemenceau should be in the Fontaine images.  Singing the alphabet song is optional in this process. 🙂

You’ll scroll through, looking first at the street name, then the house numbers.  And then voila!  Hopefully you find your target!   I present to you Josephine Baker and her surprisingly large household: 

To comply with privacy laws, only the public figures’ names are shown. See original record for complete details.

Whew!  That was a lot, but we get a lot in return.  First, who was living with her:

  • Her manager/lover Pepito Abatino
  • Their staff of three “domestiques” or house servants, a gardener, and a concierge overseeing it all
  • A French couple labeled as “friends” (ami/e)
  • A 20-year-old woman who could be just a girl/young woman or a daughter (fille sadly means both) of someone in the household.  Either way, she worked as a stenographer for Phoscao, which made the French version of Carnation Instant Breakfast. 

We also see where each person was born, their birth years, and occupations.

Of course it creates a lot of questions as well.  Including who all of the non-servants are and why are they there.  But it’s a good start! 

Villa Beau-Chêne, Josephine’s house in Le Vésinet


While it seems that Paris didn’t have the City Directories that we know and love from this period, there are some directories to help hunt down the elusive ancestor. 

American Chamber of Commerce in France Directory.  The Chamber published annual directories of Americans living in Paris from about 1925-1940.  The catch? They are not yet in the public domain.  Which means finding them is less than fun.  Some universities have copies in their libraries–hopefully near you!

The full name of each is American Chamber of Commerce in France. Americans in France: A Directory + the year.  Use the WorldCat search for the year you are looking for.  Some copies are also available on Amazon, AbeBooks, and Ebay periodically.  Lastly, you can search the 1925 edition online here.  Note that you will not see anything other than indexed results.   

Tout Paris.  If your ancestor lucked out and was part of high society, there were directories for those folks.  The Tout-Paris: Annuaire de la société parisienne annual publication lists the rich and famous.  Some are public domain and others are not.  Some are available in the Hathi Trust Digital Library and some are on Google Books

Other Resources

Like with the directories, due to privacy laws we are a bit hamstrung when it comes to a lot of public data.  But, as you may have seen on the FamilySearch page, there are more records available online, depending on the department and commune.  

If your ancestor was a musician, artist, or otherwise possibly even partly famous, they may be mentioned in some of the more inclusive books or websites focused on this period.  See the first part for some resources focused on Black Paris, as well check out your local library and the internet for more options.

Was your ancestor active in their home community? Their departure or return home may have been mentioned in the local newspaper. If they were especially noteworthy, they may have been mentioned in the New York Times or the paper of their city of departure.

Lastly, you can hire local genealogists in France who can access the archives for data that has not yet been digitized or available for public use.  Check out the Association for Professional Genealogists (American/English with some researchers in France) or if you are feeling brave, the French union for genealogists (you’ll need google translate). 

Apologies for yet another long one!  But I hope this helps you get started on your French Adventure! 

Will you be hunting down any 20th century French ancestors?  Would you like to see older French records searches?  Other countries?  Or do you want me to stick with the U.S. of A?  Let me know below!  Thanks!

In Case You Missed It: Check out Part 1, about why and how African Americans moved to Paris after World War 1!

Image Credits
Cover Photo:  RMS Mauritania. From Monovisions Black & White Photography Magazine
Fun at the Bar: Pinterest Pin #277393658279631329
All Census Images are from the ARCHIVES DÉPARTEMENTALES DES YVELINES. The Josephine Baker Census Record is in the 1931 Le Vésinet Census, Fontaine Image Set, Image 18/page 168.
Villa Beau-Chêne: credits unknown. From the Société d’histoire du Vésinet
Tout Paris: From the 1925 Edition, available at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Public Domain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *