April 19, 2010
Exploring Madame Grandin’s Chicago
By Mary Beth Raycraft
While translating Madame Léon Grandin’s 1894 travel memoir, A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition, I also played the role of tag-along tourist. Her 1894 account of her stay in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition first caught my attention in a Paris library. As I read her spirited descriptions of late 19th-century boarding houses, shops, and social and cultural life, the city’s spectacles seemed to literally jump off the page. Since I am not a Chicagoan, I had no choice but to allow Madame Grandin to lead me around the city. Strolling along the lakeshore, shopping at department stores in the Loop, attending classes at the Art Institute, and exploring the Fairgrounds at Jackson Park, she left me breathless as I tried to keep up on her colorful, behind the scenes tour of 1893 Chicago.
As I began to translate her adventures, I used a late 19th-century map to identify the places mentioned in her account. Mapping the neighborhoods and places that she frequented allowed me to visualize her movement throughout the city. At the time of her visit, Madame Grandin was a twenty-eight year old Parisian school teacher with a lively curiosity about American life. Her husband, the sculptor Léon Grandin, was part of a team of artists working on the Columbian Fountain for the Exposition and so in preparation for the fair, the couple spent ten months in Chicago between August of 1892 and June of 1893. [See a slideshow of the Fair from the Brooklyn Museum]
Arriving in the city via a train from Niagara Falls, Madame Grandin was astonished at Chicago’s sprawl which was five times that of her native Paris. She gasped as she took in the broad thoroughfare of State Street, with its whirlwind of activity and dramatic architecture. Eager to find their lodgings, the Grandins jumped on a streetcar and headed to the south side of the city. Unlike most foreign visitors who stayed in hotels, Madame Grandin and her husband rented rooms in three different boardinghouses over the course of their stay, because, as she explained, this setting “offered the best opportunity to meet a wide range of people and gain true understanding of the intimate details of American life.” Their first stop was a boardinghouse located at 3700 South Ellis Avenue. Although they complained about the miserly landlady and the skimpy meals, they relished the lovely view of Lake Michigan. In search of more comfortable accommodations and better food, the Grandins moved to another rooming house near Drexel Boulevard. Seeking more privacy and independence, the couple subsequently found lodging with kitchen privileges on 44th Street near Wabash Avenue. They ended their stay in the residential Hotel Everett on Lake Park Drive. Although I have not been able to locate any of the original dwellings, a stroll around Hyde Park, Kenwood and the Museum of Science and Industry, which served as the Palace of Fine Arts for the Columbian Exposition, gives a general sense of their comings and goings in this part of the city.
When the Grandins arrived in Chicago in August of 1892, a grueling heat wave was underway that would be followed by a severe winter and a rainy spring. Despite Chicago’s weather, which European travelers often called extreme, Madame Grandin went for daily walks. One of her favorite spots was Lake Michigan. Over the course of her stay, she watched its transformation during boating races, summer dances, and ice skating parties. She also admired the lush, green spaces of the city, including Washington Park, and enjoyed walks along Drexel Boulevard which she compared to the elegant Parisian Avenue des Champs Elysees. As the November 1892 presidential election approached, Madame Grandin witnessed noisy street parades in support of incumbent Benjamin Harrison and former President Grover Cleveland, who was the eventual winner.
After getting settled on the south side of the city, Madame Grandin soon discovered that a tram car conveniently shuttled between Jackson Park and the Loop. The throbbing heart of the city, the Loop became the focus of many of her expeditions, including visits to the Art Institute, the Chicago Public Library, and the Auditorium, where she and her husband attended the Inaugural Ball of the Exposition in October 1892. Madame Grandin also frequented the commercial establishments of the Loop, including the elegant Siegel Cooper department store and Gunther’s Confectionary on State Street, where she found the candies far superior to those in Paris.
Madame Grandin’s outgoing personality and curiosity about the city soon led to a flurry of social activity. Her friendship with two instructors at the Art Institute, Lydia Hess and Marie Gélon Cameron, enabled her to visit their studios and classes, located at the time in the Athenaeum Building on Van Buren Street. The Grandins regularly attended the “five o’clock gatherings” with the Art Institute director, William Marchant Richardson French, where they sipped tea and participated in discussions about the art scene in Chicago. During social outings to cultural events, parties, and dinners, Madame Grandin kept a sharp eye on the behavioral codes of Chicago’s men and women. She was shocked that young ladies were free to socialize with young men away from the watchful eye of a chaperone. At the same time, she openly admired American husbands who took their role as protector and provider very seriously and who seemed to marry for love rather than money. Armed with a letter of introduction from an acquaintance in Paris, Madame Grandin eventually gained entrance into the highest social circle by becoming a habituée in the salon of Bertha Palmer’s elegant home on Lake Shore Drive. At the time, Mrs. Palmer, whom Madame Grandin calls “the incarnation of charm,” was busy organizing events at Woman’s Building of the Columbian Exposition.
Writing about the fair, Madame Grandin noted: “I literally watched the Exposition site come to life.” She provides a meticulous tour of the buildings and exhibits, beginning with the Woman’s Building, which she describes as “without question one of the most interesting places of the entire site.” Grandin’s visits to the Woman’s Building and her conversations with individual women involved in the project provided her with a place and a framework for thinking about much of what she had admired in Chicago in terms of education and gender relations. She was also impressed with the child care facility in the Children’s Building, the innovative technology behind the Ferris Wheel, and the eclectic international exhibits, enthusiastically concluding: “that this Exposition was marvelous and superior to all previous ones.”
Not content to restrict her research to the city’s neighborhoods, she headed to Oak Woods Cemetery on All Soul’s Day, and made the two hour train trip to Calumet Lake, where she also toured Pullman and its remarkable railroad car factory. Like many other European visitors, she visited the Union Stock Yard, and in spite of being revolted by the “sickening odor,” she found “the different processes performed on the animals fascinating.”
Although Madame Grandin visited many of the same Chicago places as other foreign travelers, her lengthy residence and natural curiosity eventually led her to enter a number of homes, schools, and shops where she experienced her own “Chicago” rather than that depicted in tourist guides for visitors to the fair. As she circulated in the bustling streets, Madame Grandin discovered a vibrant urban setting where she began to feel at home. Her adventures offer not only a juicy window onto the spectacles offered by the city and the fair in 1892-93, but also on daily life as experienced by a young, open-minded Parisian school teacher, energized by the dynamism of Chicago and its inhabitants.
Mary Beth Raycraft is a senior lecturer in French at Vanderbilt University and the translator of Madame Léon Grandin’s A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition. (University of Illinois Press, 2010) See www.aparisienneinchicago.com for interactive maps of Madame Grandin’s Chicago.