The title of this post is a slogan that was created for a 1952 Hat Council (UK) advertisement. Times have clearly changed, and the Hat Council is no more. As a distraction from the anxiety of the awful war in Ukraine, I took myself down to Septfonds on a sunny, springlike day. Septfonds sits on a plateau just below the foothills of the Massif Central. The main road from Caussade slices through one side of it, which makes it a place you are unlikely to stop in. And yet this small town is absolutely steeped in history.
The name Septfonds probably derives from the existence of seven springs, although their exact location is not known today. The area was already inhabited in prehistoric times, judging by the clutch of dolmens that exists in the commune.
A settlement developed around an abbey established in the 12th century. The site of the village moved to a bastide, or new town, one of many established by Alphonse de Poitiers during the 13th century. Their distinguishing feature was a grid pattern of streets surrounding a large central square. That layout has not changed in nearly 800 years.
Septfonds was the birthplace in 1892 of Dieudonnée Costes, a pioneering aviator. Having already broken various aviation records, he and his co-pilot achieved the first Paris-New York flight in just over 37 hours in September 1930.
The commune was also the site of an internment camp, which started life as an overspill refugee camp for Spanish people who fled after the fall of Barcelona in 1939. This is a story for another day, since there is much to tell, and war is all too topical just now.
Today, I want to focus on a happier story: the development of the hat-making industry, which was Septfonds’ major enterprise during the 19th century.
Straw hats are redolent of Impressionist paintings, of déjeuners sur l’herbe and dances in guinguettes by the Seine. The image of Maurice Chevalier wielding his boater (canotier) also springs to mind. These symbols of stylish leisure had comparatively humble beginnings.
The story goes that it all started with Pétronille Cantecor. What a fabulous name! It sounds like something out of an Offenbach operetta, and, in fact, the surname means “the heart that sings”.
Pétronille was born in 1770. Cantecor was the name of her first husband. She had legions of children (some accounts say 13) and brought them up while helping her husband with the farm. She began to braid straw into long tresses, which she then made into hats for her family. Impressed with her work, Pétronille’s neighbours asked her to make hats for them, too.
So popular were Pétronille’s hats that she set up a hat-making workshop in Septfonds in 1796, thereby founding an industry that flourished during the next century. From straw hats, the manufacturers diversified into other materials, such as wool and felt, and numerous workshops and factories sprang up in the town.
By the mid-19th century, the industry provided work for about 3,000-4,000 people in a wide area that extended as far as Puylaroque, Caylus and Saint-Antonin. Some of the workers were employed in the workshops, assembling and finishing the hats. Others were pieceworkers, who combined farm work with braiding the straw tresses or pailloles (the name for the tresses as well as the finished hats).
For copyright reasons, I am unable to reproduce contemporary photos of the hat-making processes, and a website where I found some seems to have closed down. However, I have found an image of an old lady braiding straw tresses, supposedly taken in or near Caylus. She has quite a bundle of them ready for collection. Notice also her bonnet or coiffe, the traditional female rural headgear, which had to cover the hair. No respectable woman went out without wearing one. Older women were still wearing them up to the 1930s in places.
The braiding took place either while guarding the flocks in the fields or during the veillées, the long winter evenings, when neighbours congregated to pass the time, tell stories and carry out collective tasks, like shelling walnuts. Braiding, although often women’s work, was also carried out by male shepherds, as contemporary photos demonstrate.
During the 19th century, the manufacturing processes became increasingly automated with the introduction of steam presses and mechanised sewing machines. Pétronille’s grandson, the aptly named Fortuné Cantecor, was at the forefront of these developments.
By the end of the century, however, competition from abroad spelled the slow decline of Septfonds’ hat-making industry. One after another, the factories closed their doors. Most of the workshops have become private houses or are converted into apartments. Today, one hat manufacturer still exists in Septfonds and two in Caussade, a few kilometres down the main road.
Septfonds has a “maison des mémoires“ (lit. a house of memory), La Mounière, which aims to communicate the history of the town more widely. It is located in the former house of a hat salesman, Raymond Peyrières, a Resistance fighter who was deported to Dachau in 1944. Between December and May La Mounière is open only by reservation, so I was unable to go inside yesterday.
La Mounière has published two walks, available on its website (navigable in English): one traces the key sites in the hat industry; the other is in remembrance of the internment camp and takes you to sites outside the town as well. I actually did both yesterday, although I cheated and took the car for the further-flung sights on the remembrance walk.
As I walked around the village, the post-Sunday lunch tranquillity was broken only by the occasional blackbird trilling in a garden. Traffic noise from the busy main road was barely audible. The houses were bathed in sunshine, and snowy drifts of plum blossom hung over garden walls. It seemed that all was right with the world, although we know very well it isn’t.
I am very grateful to Monsieur Jean-Marc Labarta, who runs a website about Septfonds (in French) and publishes interesting posts about the area on Facebook, and to La Mounière for the information in this post.
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