When Marie Grandin arrived in Chicago in August of 1892, she was literally stunned by the novel architecture and fast pace of city life. The author of Impressions d’une parisienne à Chicago (Flammarion, 1894), this twenty-eight year old Parisian school teacher was caught up in a flurry of social and cultural activities, many of which were connected with the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition.
Her comments on what she saw in the streets, in homes, and at the Fair accentuate some of the more curious spectacles in the city. Observing American manners with a careful eye, Grandin was shocked to discover that in even the most elegant of salons, a spittoon was readily available and that Chicagoans frequently indulged in public displays of nose picking. As she strolled through the streets, she discovered the freakish exhibits at the Dime Museum including two-headed monkeys and a dwarf princess. At the Exposition, she admired the Eskimo Village and Moorish cafés as well as the technological wonders of the monumental Ferris Wheel and the luminous Palace of Electricity, illuminated with tiny Edison lamps embedded in its brick exterior.
While these unusual displays caught her attention, what Grandin found most curious of all was the relative freedom of American women. She was astonished to learn that girls and boys shared coeducational classrooms and that young people were free to socialize away from the watchful eye of a chaperone. During her ten-month visit, she met a number of dynamic women of all ages, who were passionately engaged in the social, cultural, and political life in Chicago. Although the primary reason for her trip was to view the marvels of the city and of the Fair, in the end, Chicago’s women turned out to be the most impressive spectacle of all.