You have probably squinted and tried to magnify a blurry old photo to see the house number of an ancestor or relative, usually without much success—unless you know the house number and are just confirming that the photo is of the house at that address. Or perhaps you have an ancestor who lived on a farm that had a name. I’ve learned a few things about house names recently. Let’s look.
The Luxembourg American Cultural Society (LACS) Luxembourg American Cultural Society (lacs.lu) sponsors a festival each year with many events and activities. This year Jean Ensch presented Luxembourg Ancestral Houses and it was available to watch via Zoom which was great for those of us not able to attend the event in Wisconsin. Jean is from Luxembourg and an expert on Luxembourg history and genealogy. If you ever get the chance to attend a presentation from him, do! We learned how homes in Luxembourg were named and why. This started me on my own journey to see what I could find with my family.
In the past, I’ve mentioned the German Familienbuchs which provide information family units for a given parish or village based on church and civil records. They are a great resource if you’re fortunate to find one for your area of research. One such book had the family name as Leisen or Classen with a note that some of their children used the name Leisen while others used Classen. Well, this made no sense to me until I heard Jean’s presentation.
In the 1600s and 1700s, people in small villages knew everyone and you were probably known for where you lived. Example perhaps your surname became Miller if you lived by a mill or were the village miller. After a while, the house took on that name. To make this more confusing, if a man married and moved to his wife’s family home, often he took the name of that family instead of keeping his own. Their children were known by this house name as their surname. So, it is likely that my Leisen ancestor had moved to a house with the Classen—whether it was his wife’s home or not is still unclear as there was another surname also associated with her.
A friend pointed out that this model wasn’t completely different from how the farms are named in Norway. Often there were a few families who lived and worked on a particular farm. People took on the name of the farm or changed their surname to the farm name when they immigrated to the United States.
As the use of surnames became required and in the case of Luxembourg, the females were not allowed to change their surname with their marriage, the tradition of using the house name as the surname went out of style. However, that doesn’t mean that people still didn’t use that name to refer to people—it just wasn’t used officially in church, civic and census records. An interesting tidbit is that in the mid-1800s Luxembourg census records, they did ask for the house name (Maison dite). Not all census takers completed this, but it was interesting to look across a few years to see if the name stayed the same. I found that for a couple of my people they used a first name or a surname for the name of the house. Since they did this consistently, I am assuming that the information was correct. In my Kaiser family, the name was the surname once while another time it was Eck Schmied which translates to the “Corner Smith” (Blacksmith) which was the family occupation for generations.
This is a great blog by Cathy Meder-Dempsey that explains more about house names. What’s the secret of “maison dite” or house names in Luxembourg records? – Opening Doors in Brick Walls (wordpress.com)
While house names might not help you find a relative like a church record, they do help with some of the puzzles of surname changes. I haven’t looked at the German census records yet (sadly none are available online for my regions), I do think it would be worthwhile. We are all so proud of our family surnames, but it wasn’t so long ago that these names were not part of our ancestors’ daily lives. I am now on a quest to find older maps to see if I can find the house where my ancestors lived. If I find some great map information I will share in a future blog. Happy searching!
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.