Humanities Moments

The “Infinitely Human”: Life Writings, Locks of Hair and Lived History

Contributed by Morgane Haesen, 28, PhD candidate (French and Francophone Studies), Penn State University
Lock of hair
Like fellow humanists, I struggled to pick a single moment to describe and share with you. However, while delving into my corpus (life writings – mostly diaries, autobiographies and memoirs - from the Franco-German borderland, Alsace-Lorraine, at the turn of the twentieth century), I am reminded of a unique moment I experienced when I discovered these documents in the archives.

In May 2018, the week after finishing my first year of the PhD program in the French and Francophone Studies Department at Penn State, I set out on my first archival trip to Strasbourg, France. Once in the archives, my curiosity and intellect were quickly at odds with my limited resources and time. In most French departmental archives, researchers are allowed to order and go through eight archival boxes per day. They usually contain part of a collection, and can range from several pieces of paper to several hundred documents. Moreover, not all boxes are described in the archive’s “finding aid” or databases. The nature of their contents sometimes requires an educated guess based on the limited information available to you. As such, with only a month in France, my research choices needed to be strategic: I had to single out the boxes I believed would contain the best documents to help in my research. One collection in particular piqued my curiosity as the archivists Virginie Godar-Lejeune and Marie-Ange Glessgen described it as having an “infinitely human quality.” While these writings fell out of my delineated period of study, I nonetheless decided to follow my dissertation committee’s advice to “listen” to the archives, indeed to avail myself of what Alsatian-Lorrainers had deposited at the archives instead of narrowly executing the search for my anticipated corpus: I requested the boxes in question.

After weeks of mechanically opening hundreds of envelopes and finding papers, postcards or greeting cards, I was quite taken aback when my fingers touched locks of hair. In addition to entire life papers (birth, marriage and death certificates, school grade reports, passports, and photographs), the boxes included locks of hair of every family member. Although I was aware of the practice of collecting children’s or spouses’ hair, I had quite a visceral reaction to seeing and touching it firsthand. The Lambs’ family archives almost systematically included such documents and objects for most family members between 1790 and 1936. The breadth of these documents spoke to the Lambs’ commitment to passing on their history: a small family of modest background in the industrial landscape of Strasbourg, France at the turn of the twentieth century. The intimacy of the objects included illustrated the family’s need to preserve their loved one’s memory. I spent the rest of the day reading through the entire family’s collection, learning about the parents’ love for their children, as well as their fear of losing them to wars and subsequent political instability in the region at that time.

As a doctoral candidate, it can prove difficult to project yourself as a researcher who can meaningfully contribute to the world around you. This experience made me realize my role as a historian, specifically, as a link in the chain of “passeuses de memoire,” or living historians. While this collection is not featured in my dissertation, it has instilled in me a sense of responsibility to preserve and make available the life writings of ordinary people, which constitute my corpus. Literally touched by the history of the Lambs family, I felt compelled to pass on their history and memory as a means of understanding larger historical conjunctures. To this end, I assign some of their letters to students in French history courses to teach how individuals lived through the vicissitudes of Alsace-Lorraine’s history.

The picture shows the lock of hair and passport photo of Emilie Lorentz-Lambs (1869-1929). The family’s archives (17J) reside at the Departmental Archives of the Bas-Rhin in Strasbourg, France. The collection is freely communicable and under no copyright laws.

Title

The “Infinitely Human”: Life Writings, Locks of Hair and Lived History

Description

Like fellow humanists, I struggled to pick a single moment to describe and share with you. However, while delving into my corpus (life writings – mostly diaries, autobiographies and memoirs - from the Franco-German borderland, Alsace-Lorraine, at the turn of the twentieth century), I am reminded of a unique moment I experienced when I discovered these documents in the archives.

In May 2018, the week after finishing my first year of the PhD program in the French and Francophone Studies Department at Penn State, I set out on my first archival trip to Strasbourg, France. Once in the archives, my curiosity and intellect were quickly at odds with my limited resources and time. In most French departmental archives, researchers are allowed to order and go through eight archival boxes per day. They usually contain part of a collection, and can range from several pieces of paper to several hundred documents. Moreover, not all boxes are described in the archive’s “finding aid” or databases. The nature of their contents sometimes requires an educated guess based on the limited information available to you. As such, with only a month in France, my research choices needed to be strategic: I had to single out the boxes I believed would contain the best documents to help in my research. One collection in particular piqued my curiosity as the archivists Virginie Godar-Lejeune and Marie-Ange Glessgen described it as having an “infinitely human quality.” While these writings fell out of my delineated period of study, I nonetheless decided to follow my dissertation committee’s advice to “listen” to the archives, indeed to avail myself of what Alsatian-Lorrainers had deposited at the archives instead of narrowly executing the search for my anticipated corpus: I requested the boxes in question.

After weeks of mechanically opening hundreds of envelopes and finding papers, postcards or greeting cards, I was quite taken aback when my fingers touched locks of hair. In addition to entire life papers (birth, marriage and death certificates, school grade reports, passports, and photographs), the boxes included locks of hair of every family member. Although I was aware of the practice of collecting children’s or spouses’ hair, I had quite a visceral reaction to seeing and touching it firsthand. The Lambs’ family archives almost systematically included such documents and objects for most family members between 1790 and 1936. The breadth of these documents spoke to the Lambs’ commitment to passing on their history: a small family of modest background in the industrial landscape of Strasbourg, France at the turn of the twentieth century. The intimacy of the objects included illustrated the family’s need to preserve their loved one’s memory. I spent the rest of the day reading through the entire family’s collection, learning about the parents’ love for their children, as well as their fear of losing them to wars and subsequent political instability in the region at that time.

As a doctoral candidate, it can prove difficult to project yourself as a researcher who can meaningfully contribute to the world around you. This experience made me realize my role as a historian, specifically, as a link in the chain of “passeuses de memoire,” or living historians. While this collection is not featured in my dissertation, it has instilled in me a sense of responsibility to preserve and make available the life writings of ordinary people, which constitute my corpus. Literally touched by the history of the Lambs family, I felt compelled to pass on their history and memory as a means of understanding larger historical conjunctures. To this end, I assign some of their letters to students in French history courses to teach how individuals lived through the vicissitudes of Alsace-Lorraine’s history.

The picture shows the lock of hair and passport photo of Emilie Lorentz-Lambs (1869-1929). The family’s archives (17J) reside at the Departmental Archives of the Bas-Rhin in Strasbourg, France. The collection is freely communicable and under no copyright laws.

Date

May 2018

Contributor

Morgane Haesen, 28, PhD candidate (French and Francophone Studies), Penn State University

Identifier

infinitely-human

Referrer

NHC Graduate Winter Residency (2020)

Location