A Parisienne in Chicago by Madame Leon Grandin – Book Review

A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World’s Columbian Exposition by Madame Leon Grandin, translated by Mary Beth Raycraft

In July of 1892, Madame Leon Grandin and her husband boarded a ship in Le Havre heading for New York. They stayed for six weeks with relatives in New York, then headed across the country to Chicago, where her husband would be working on the Columbian Fountain project for the 1893 World’s Fair. “A Pariesienne in Chicago” is Madame Leon Grandin’s travelogue of her time in America, focusing extensively on social customs and societal norms in the United States and in Chicago in particular.

As I was reading Madame Leon Grandin’s account of her time in Chicago in 1892 and 1893, the quote about the past being a foreign country was continually running through my head. Madame Grandin traveled from Paris to the place that I live, but the Chicago of 120 years ago is nearly as foreign to me as it was to her, even discounting the changes in technology between then and now. The things that really got to me don’t seem like big things, but they were so unexpected I was just shocked, things like Thanksgiving being a religious holiday where people headed to church in the morning instead of watching parades and football.

Being as this was a translation of a 19th century travelogue focusing on social practices in Chicago, I was amazed at how completely engaging “A Parisienne in Chicago” was. I literally did not want to put it down because Madame Grandin’s voice was so engaging. I attribute this both to Grandin’s writing style (which included lots of exclamation points!) and to Mary Beth Raycraft’s skillful translation. I do think it is important to note that, the subtitle not withstanding,  only a very small portion of the book actually deals directly with the World’s Fair, so if that’s your main impetus for picking this book up you may be disappointed. That being said, I think this was much more interesting for the social history it highlighted than it would have been if it were just Grandin’s impressions of the World’s Fair.

Highly recommended.

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