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Not Nice in Nice

Illinois once was French—not that you’d notice

Illinois Times

May 21, 1992

Illinois used to be a province of France, until the loss of a Continental war to Britain resulted in the  surrender its North American territories to the Brits and the Illinois Country’s slide into barbarity. Public attitudes toward the French ever since betray out resentment at our abandonment.

Oh, my careless assertion here that Illinois bears a French name I finally corrected in a 2016 column, “Mis-say it loud, mis-say it proud.”


A lot of people lost money betting on the favorite, a French horse named Arazi, in the Kentucky Derby, which only confirmed the general ill feeling that the French cannot be counted upon. "The last good thing the French did," groused one loser to me, "was to execute Louis XIV."


Illinois used to be a province of France, generally speaking. The state bears a French name, it was "discovered" by Frenchmen, its first towns were French. But apart from a few relics and some unpronounceable place names little of what they left behind has endured. Too bad; the French interlude saw perhaps the only civilized era in Illinois's post-European history.


The trade in those days was mostly in furs. Today France is Illinois's eighth largest export trading partner, doing more than half a billion dollar worth of business in 1990. Roughly 150 French firms have operations in Illinois, employing more than 10,000 people; Illinois's Sara Lee Corporation alone does a billion a year in France. The French government maintains a more substantial presence in Illinois today than it ever did when it owned the joint, with separate scientific, trade, cultural, tourism, and investment offices as well as their consulate in Chicago. 


These facts were brought home to an indifferent public during a month-long festival in May called "Illinois Salutes France." Centered mainly in Chicago, this state-backed extravaganza was meant to "showcase the long and prosperous relationship between Illinois and France." In fact it was meant to prolong and improve it, with a grab bag of tourism promotions, Chamber of Commerce talks, and cultural instruction. Nearly three dozen events were staged in all—cooking demonstrations, film showings, lectures on French history in the U.S,. investment tips, performances of French music. (The only act in this revue to play Springfield, alas, is the exhibit of French photography that will hang at the State Library through June 3.)


Chicago is the perfect place to contemplate the French influence in Illinois. The place was settled not (as popular myth might have it) by an Irishman but by a man named DuSable. The most popular paintings and sculpture that entrance people at the Art Institute are French by authorship or subject; seminal Chicago School architects like Louis Sullivan trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris; Marshall Field's department store was largely modeled on Paris's Bon Marché. French-style restaurants are again in vogue, and one of the Loop's more digestible fast food may be purchased at any outlet of Au Bon Pain, a sort of Gallic McDonald's.


French ideas and ways immigrated to Chicago, but not many of French people ever did. As a result the French are not a physical presence in the city the way that the Poles, Italians, Jews, Irish, Mexicans, and assorted Asian peoples are. Instead, French ways are kept alive by the traveled upper middle class, the junior-semester-in-Europe set. 


I found myself amongst a whole auditorium of them at the Art Institute in mid-month, where we'd gathered to hear a lecture by French architect/designer Andrée Putman. She made a striking figure—tall, 60-ish, wearing gold lame pumps and speaking in a voice redolent of cigarettes and cognac, utterly French in her worldliness and in the careful calibration of ideas. The sensibility she demonstrated in words and in slides of her work was as alien to Chicago as wisdom is to an alderman, which made it and her all the dearer to the audience.


Style is sometimes assumed to be all the French have to offer, but the month was crammed with seminars and talks about investment techniques and high-tech medicine from the Institut Pasteur, and exhibits showing off high-speed trains—French style applied to public rather than personal ends. France's tradition of educated civil servants and central planning have given its industrial policy a coherence that has eluded Washington. The results sometimes shock inattentive Americans; France's commercial airplanes are more advanced, its architecture more daring, its telecommunications more comprehensive than anything being done here. Like much of western Europe, the French do not enjoy so much private wealth as do the equivalent classes in the U.S. but most enjoy a higher standard of living. The difference is the large investments made in public services, from transit to child care.


If the French have an ambivalent attitude toward American popular culture, Americans can hardly be said to have an attitude toward French culture at all. The popular U.S. view of France is a composite of perhaps a half dozen images—the Eiffel Tower, leering boulevardiers, Free French singing the Marsellaise in Casablanca, Brigitte Bardot, people eating snails. U.S. citizens of a certain vintage imagine the French Everyman to be Maurice Chevalier, an especially misleading notion, since the French on the whole are more choleric than genial.


To know the French, however, is not necessarily to love them. Our intelligentsia in particular seems antagonistic toward them, for reasons that are not always clear. True, they make prickly allies—the news from the early days of the Gulf War was whether, not how, the French and Americans would coordinate command of their respective forces—and their foreign policy is nearly as self-serving and corrupt as our own, if less racist. But I suspect the ill feeling is owed to two things: the inexplicable French respect for Jerry Lewis and the fact that so many of our educated elites flunked college French.


What Americans most hold against the French, it seems, is that they are not like us. They elect presidents who write poetry and history, and when they come to Illinois to sight-see they contemptuously pass up Great America and the Sears Tower for trips to blues clubs in parts of Chicago that haven't seen a white person not wearing a uniform in twenty years.


The Chicago papers not long about fretted about the failure of French and other foreign-language films to find a commercial audience here. (French films were the source of at least a dozen U.S. films in the 1980s, including Three Men and a Baby, that in addition to being more intelligible than the originals to U.S. audiences were less knowing about sex and less well acted.) Slow-reading Americans like neither subtitles nor dubbing, but the main reasons Americans don't like French movies is that they are about French people.


Tales of rude treatment in France are a staple of the U.S. tourist. Most (it usually turns out) occur in Paris, France's New York, or are the result of Americans' arrogant refusal to attempt the local language, or of the French eschewing the phony bonhomie of the mall. The French prefer hauteur to hypocrisy, which makes them not "nice" in Nice.


”Vive la France,” I say. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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