Thursday, June 10, 2010

Adventures in Chicago with Marie Grandin

The following is a guest post from Mary Beth Raycraft, translator of A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exhibition.

Mary Beth will be in Chicago discussing this book at Women and Children First
(one of my favorite bookstores!) on Wednesday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m. The bookstore is at 5233 N. Clark St.

Adventures in Chicago with Marie Grandin

While translating Marie Grandin’s 1894 travel memoir, A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition, I also had the pleasure of embarking on a lively behind the scenes tour of late 19th-century Chicago. A twenty eight old Parisian schoolteacher, Marie arrived in the city in August 1892 accompanied by her husband, the sculptor Léon Grandin. They would live in Chicago for ten months while Léon supervised the installation of the Columbian Fountain at the Exposition. While he spent his days in the sculpture workshops, Marie took full advantage of her freedom and circulated in the bustling streets of the city, attended cultural events, and asked many questions as she gathered information about American life for her travel account.

Determined to get a true sense for middle class American life, the Grandins opted to stay in several different boardinghouses near Jackson Park during their time in Chicago. In each boardinghouse, Marie had an opportunity to carefully observe the clientele whose routines, interactions, and manners she meticulously documented for her readers. Determined to go beyond superficial appearances, she delicately probed relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and employers.

Pleasantly surprised by the independence and energy of Chicago’s women, Marie quickly undertook her exploration of the city. She began with walks in her neighborhood, strolling in Washington Park and along Drexel Boulevard, which she compared to the elegant Parisian Avenue des Champs Elysées. After getting settled on the south side of the city, Marie soon discovered that a tram car conveniently shuttled between Jackson Park and the Loop. The bustling city center, the Loop became the focus of many of her expeditions, including visits to department stores, the Chicago Public Library, the Athenaeum, and the Auditorium. In order to verify information, she went to the Public Library which at the time was located on the fourth floor of city hall at Lasalle and Washington streets. The Athenaeum building on Van Buren Street housed classrooms, offices, and studios as well as the growing collection of the Art Institute. Grandin’s friendship with two instructors at the Art Institute, Lydia Hess and Marie Gélon Cameron, gave her access to many activities there, including afternoon teas with faculty members. Also on her itinerary was the Auditorium Building, which attracted much attention during the fair for its stunning architecture and multifunction design. Marie and her husband joined distinguished foreign visitors at the elegant inaugural ball held there in October 1892 where she was struck by the sumptuous décor and the graceful dancers. She also frequented the commercial establishments of the Loop, including department stores where she admired the vast range of goods and Gunther’s Confectionary on State Street where she indulged her sweet tooth.

Armed with a letter of introduction from an acquaintance in Paris, Marie Grandin eventually gained entrance into Chicago’s highest social circle, becoming a habitué in the salon of Bertha Palmer’s elegant home on Lake Shore Drive. At the time, Palmer was busy with preparations for the opening of the Woman’s Building at the fair which Marie enthusiastically described as “without question one of the most interesting buildings of the entire site.” Indeed, Marie’s visits to the Woman’s Building and her conversations with individual women involved in the project provided her with a place and framework for thinking about what she had observed in Chicago in terms of education and gender relations.

While she admired Chicago’s modern cityscape and unusual tourist attractions, Marie Grandin was particularly struck by the relative freedom of American women. She was surprised to see girls and boys studying side by side in coeducational classrooms and young people socializing away from the watchful eye of a chaperone. Over the course of her interactions in boardinghouses, private homes, schools, and at the fair, she encountered a number of dynamic women who were passionately engaged in the social, cultural, and political life in Chicago. Although Marie Grandin had eagerly anticipated visiting the city and the Fair, in the end, Chicago’s women turned out to be the most dynamic spectacle of all.

Mary Beth Raycraft teaches French at Vanderbilt University and is the translator of Madame Léon Grandin’s A Parisienne in Chicago, Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition (University of Illinois Press, 2010). See for interactive maps of Madame Grandin’s Chicago.

(Photo of Mary Beth Raycraft courtesy of the author)

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