French Feet (and Inches)

Grandma told me that when Alphonsine and her sister Albertine arrived in Lewiston, they caused a stir among the Franco mill workers because they were so pretty.

She would have said that they were the Prettiest People Ever Invented no matter what.

Scarlett OHara

More helpfully, she told me that they had auburn ringlets and fair skin with freckles. (I forget sometimes how fair most of my ancestors were.) She also said that at four foot ten or eleven they were tall.

Now, I’m more than happy to accept that my ancestors were good-looking, but I had to check on Grandma’s definition of ‘tall’.

Nineteenth century agriculturalists were often fairly malnourished from insufficient and monotonous diets, which meant that they didn’t grow as tall as we do, didn’t live as long, and hit puberty later. So it’s wholly believable that my great-great-grandmother was fifteen or sixteen centimetres shorter than I. The not easily believable part is that at that height, she was taller than most of the other young women at the time.

So I looked up the statistics on height back then. They say that average height in the 1890s was maybe a couple of centimetres shorter than now, which still puts four foot ten in the ‘really short’ section of Sarah’s Official Scale.

Then I remembered that there were different measurements in France and that maybe Grandma had been talking in French feet. I looked that up and found that there are like six different definitions of French feet. So I checked out the two that were most prevalent and most likely to have been in use in the late nineteenth century.

rulersIn Napoleon’s ‘metric feet’, four feet and ten inches is almost 160cm* which is taller, but still below average. That system was only used in retail and only between 1812 and 1837. Although that memo could have gotten lost on its way to Québec.

The other kind of ‘French foot’ is 32.98cm, which makes Alphonsine about 155cm tall, taller than regular feet but shorter than Napoleon feet. Sigh.

Saying that her grandmother was the prettiest girl in town was something that Grandma would have said regardless of what other people’s opinions might have. But she wouldn’t say someone was tall because it made the story better. She was a little pixie person and so were her sisters and her mother. The tall thing is weird.

Anyway, the anecdotal details that I’m basing this novel on are all from her, and are only the ones she wanted to pass onto me via her grandmother. Who was the one who was allegedly both pretty and tall.

I need a Ouija board.

My grandma coloured her stories, whether they were about things that happened the day before or the century before, to make them darker or more vivid or just to bump up the contrast a bit.

I’m doing the same – it’s one of the reasons this book is a novel and not a biography. I think I’m going to leave the idea of my girls being tall out of it.


* Math (a little too) joyfully provided by Ming and Alexis.

Image credit


  1. Joan Vermette
    27 Feb 2013

    I don’t know if this was a question of a different scale of measurement, but I tend to believe our immigrant Franco ancestors were all teeny. My Pepère was 5’2″ and my Mémère 4’10” – in standard American feet and inches – and they were average height for their background and generation, given the rest of my family. All of the Franco American antiques I’ve ever seen indicate they were built by and for much smaller people – in fact, I’ve seen many Franco-American, Québecois, and Acadian antique furniture misclassified by antique dealers as children’s furniture, because of the scale on which they were built.

    So – I think our Franco 19th century ancestors were teeny people and smaller than people in other cultures in their generation. No one mislabels Irish or Scottish antiques as children’s furniture.

    Nope – we descend from shrimps. 😉

    • Sarah
      28 Feb 2013

      Oh my god! So at 4’10 she could have been average height? Good grief! That detail about the tiny furniture is pretty hilarious. Do you have any ideas about why they were so small?

Submit a Comment

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