The Vicomte de Lesseps was one of the most famous Frenchman of the mid-19th
Century because of his role in building the Suez Canal. De Lesseps remarried in 1869. He married Louise-Helene Autard de Bragard, just after the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. he de Lesseps had an impressive family of 11 children who survived into adulthood. One child died in infancy. The two oldest childrn were boys. The oldest child Mathieu was born in 1870. Ismaël born in 1871 was the next child. There were six boys in all. The oldest girl was Ferdinande born in 1872. Ther youngest Child was Gisèle born in 1885, Ferdinand's 80th year. The young second Madame de Lesseps (Louise-Helene) appears to have delighted in dressing the children in pretty outfits, sometimes including hair bows for their shoulder-length hair. De Lesseps was the subject of many magazine articles concerning the Suez and Panama Canals. The articles were illustrated by both drawings and photographs.
The Vicomte de Lesseps was one of the most famous Frenchman of the mid-19th
Century because of his role in building the Suez Canal. De Lesseps remarried in 1869. He married Louise-Helene Autard de Bragard. She was a young daughter of an old friend. The family had an estate on Mauritius, a French Indian Ocean colony seized by the British. Thus her father was now a British subject. His dauhter, however, was educated in Paris. The two had met at one of the Emperess Eugéiene "Monday" affairs. He apparently fell in love with her at once. They engaged in a descret long-distance romance via letters as he was spending condierable time in Egypt working on the Suez Canal. They married just after the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869. Mlle was much younger than the Vicomte. He was then 64 and she was only 20 years old. This surely must have raised eye-brows even in France. Many may have thought that marrying such a young girl was inappropriate. Others may have felt that she was seeking to marry a leading citizen of France for social reasons. One biographer denies this, climing that she admired DeLesseps as a person. [Beatty, p. 262.] In our modern jaded age readers might take this asertion with some suspision. By all accounts it was, however, a happy marriage. Certainly 11 children does some degree of marital affection. Given her age, she did not know the many high officials that he knew nor did she know much concerning his work on the canal.
The de Lesseps had an impressive family of 11 children who survived into adulthood. One child died in infancy. The two oldest childrn were boys. The oldest child Mathieu was born in 1870. Ismaël born in 1871 was the next child. There were six boys in all. The oldest girl was Ferdinande born in 1872. Ther youngest Child was Gisèle born in 1885,
Ferdinand's 80th year. Nine of the 11 children are in figure 1 on the previous page and we believe that 5 of the children in the photograph here are boys (figure 1). Our guess is that in addition to Paul and Robert, the child on the far right, the child on his father's lap, and the child held by the mother are boys.
De Lesseps in 1879 moved to Panama with their three young children. Ferdanande inaugurated construction on the Panama Canal in 1880 for her father.
The young second Madame de Lesseps (Louise-Helene) appears to have delighted in dressing the children in pretty outfits, sometimes including hair bows for their shoulder-length
hair. Mothers, especially in wealthy families. could pretty much dress their children anyway she pleased. Perhaps it was her youthful romantic outlook or perhaps it was a special interest in fashionable attire--she was after all only out of her teens when first married. Another factor could have been De Lesseps age. He probably wore dresses as a boy as was probably the case for the boys from his first marriage in the 1830s. We know for
a fact that the older boys (Paul and John) wore dresses like their sister when they were younger. The reason for this is that he has seen a number of other photographs and
other material on de Lesseps.
De Lesseps was the subject of many magazine articles concerning the Suez and Panama Canals. The articles were illustrated by both drawings and photographs. In at least one of these articles their is a picture of the three oldest children, Ferdanande, Paul, and John. They look to range from 8 to 11 years of age. Paul the oldest is driving a donkey cart with Lousie and John as passengers. All three children wear identical dresses and have uncurled hair below the shoulders, although no hair bows. The hair bows appear to have been worn for special occasions such as the formal family photograph, and not for every day. In another article without pictures 12 year old Paul is described as wearing a
sailor suit with girlish curls to the middle of his back. A family photograph during the early 1880s show only 9 children and 2 boys in sailor suits with long hair. From this a reader deduces that at least one of the girls in that photo is really a boy.
The famous French photographer, Nadar, photographed
the DeLesseps family during the late 19th century. I believe that based on the ages of the children that the photograph was taken about 1888-89. I have few details on who the individuals are but some information can deduced by the ages of the children. Certainly DeLesseps himself (seated at the left), perhaps his grown son Charles (one of the men at the right), his wife now nearing 40 years of age (holding a child at center), two of the older children (Ferdanande-18 and Paul-17 or John-16)
are at the left rear (figure 1). The younger children at front. One reader, however, questions whether the men at the rear are Charles or Victor.
At first glance it looks like there are seven girls in the photograph (figure 1). This is because all the younger children have long hair and hair bows and dresses with patent leather strap shoes and white socks. Unfortunately, I do not have details on the younger De Lesseps children. However it is unlikely that all the younger children are girls. In fact
I would say that the child seated at left and the two children at the right are boys. I say this for several reasons. We would greatly appreciate any further historical details or insights visitors might have.
Law of averages: First, it is mathematically unlikely that all the younger children in the family were girls. If we were talking about a small number, it is quite possible that they all could have been girls. It is very unlikely that this portrait would have been taken with only th oung girls of the family.
Boyish looks: Second, several of the younger children have boyish-looking faces. Of course with young children, it is often very difficult to assess gender from the children's faces.
Plain styles: Third, some of the dresses are plainer than the others. Boys often wore dresses that were more plainly styled than those worn by girls. As ith many of these indicators, this was not an absolute rule, but it was commonly the case.
Rifles: Fourth, and most convincingly, two of the children hold rifles. The props children were photographed commonly gave clues as to gender. In this case two of the childr have rifles--a boyish prop. It is very unlikely that girls would have been photographed in a formal family portrait holding guns.
Brothers: Fifth, brothers were often dressed alkile as were sisters. In this case we note that the two children at the right wear identical dresses. These look very much as if they were brothers.
Hobby horses: Sixth, we note a stuffed sheep or goat that is serving as a hobbyhorse. a HBC reader notes that the child is NOT riding 'sidesaddle.' Our reader writes, "Am I right in guessing it would be unthinkable in 1880sto photograph a female child in the one-leg-on-either-side riding pose?" [Nesvet] Here we are not sure. we suspect thast the reader is correct. We have very few French hobby horse portriats. We have many ameriucan hobby horse portraits, but it is difficult to determin how girls sat on hobby horses as almost all of the portraits we have are boy with hobbyhorses.
The photograph taken in Panama of the De Lesseps children in a cart was taken in 1879 (figure 2). This is the date of De Lesseps first visit to Panama. This would make the youngest child 2 and the oldest 9. This image and the other images by Nadar show that the boys and girls were dressed alike until they were 10 years old.
The drawings and photographs raise many interesting questions about
French boys' fashions and customs.
Frequency : Did the boys wear dresses all the time or just for special occasions? The boys in the photograph almost certainly wore dresses all the time. The dresses they wear in the photograph are probably their best party dresses, but all their other outfits would have also been dresses.
Home wear: Would the boys have worn smocks and pinafores at home? The probably also had smocks and pinafores. While we know that smoks were widely worn by boys at school in the late 19th century, we have much less informtion as to the extent to which boys wore smocks at home. The boys probably wore plainer dresses at home for play and everyday wear. Smocks and perhaps even pinafore were commonly worn to protect clothes and it was even more common for French boys to wear smocks than dresses. Thus it seems almost certain they would have worn smocks at home. As Madame de Lesseps appears to have sometimes chosen identical frocks for the younger children (figure ?), it seems reasonable to believe that they were all sometimes dressed in identical smocks, a popular fashion of the day. Perhaps even the younger boys in knee pants might wear smocks like their younger brothers. I have, however, no actual information or photographs to confirm this. One knowledgeable reader reports, "I think you are right they probably wore pinafores or smocks as everyday wear."
School : What did the boys wear to school? I have no information on schooling. It is likely, however, that the boys would not have been sent off to school in dresses, even though French children wore smocks to school. Another observer concurs, " I definitely do not think school age boys would be sent to school in dresses." De Lesseps was wealthy enough that the children were probably schooled at home. A knowledgeable source indicates, "I also agree that it is unlikely that these children attended school before the age of 12."
Outings : Did the boys go on outings in dresses? As mentioned above, the boys almost certainly wore dresses (with smocks and pinafores) all the time, not just for photographs. That would mean that they would be in dresses for outings to the park, parties, church and other events. Just because they did not go to school does not mean they did not go to the ordinary social functions like all boys. One of the individuals assisting with this page concurs, "The boys in the photo probably attended church in dresses." It is likely that for some of the less formal outings, such as to the park they would have worn smocks over their dresses.
Beatty, De Lesseps of Suez: The Man and His Times (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 334p.
Gosling, Nigel. Nadar (Alfred A Knope, New York, 1976).
Nesvet, Rebecca. E-mail message, June 21, 2003.
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