'Paris of the New World': A look at how Montreal was sold to Americans in the 1930s

During the Depression, where could an American tourist escape to for a dose of beauty, outdoor adventures and historic charm?

The "Paris of the New World," of course.

In 1937, Tourism Montreal [then known as the Montreal Tourist & Convention Bureau] gave that title to a 31-page booklet sent south of the border.

It wanted to entice Americans to spend their tourist dollars in the "Metropolis of Canada."

Today, Tourism Montreal has glossy videos to showcase the city, but at the time, it implored potential visitors to use their imagination.

"There are some things about Montreal, its charm and atmosphere, that cannot be rendered pictorially," it said in the booklet.

"Even if you are accustomed to the racy life of New York or the romantic traditions of San Francisco, Montreal just has that 'something' about it." 

That "something" was often attributed to the city's old-fashioned charm that came from its Francophone culture and historic sites.

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"'Je Me Souviens,' the motto of the province, is no meaningless phrase," declares the 20th page of the booklet.

It said that Montrealers kept in touch with "the good old days" unlike anywhere else in North America.

A bustling metropolis

At the time, Montreal was Canada's largest city — the only one with a population of more than one million people — as well as the "industrial, commercial and financial centre of the Dominion."

But like the rest of North America, Montreal was also reeling from the Great Depression — something that may have led to the tourism push.

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"[In the 1920s] Americans were really flooding into Montreal to come to drink," said Paul-André Linteau, professor emeritus of history with the Université du Québec à Montréal. 

"With the effect of the Depression and the end of the Prohibition, there would have been fewer Americans coming to Montreal than there used to be … I can imagine that people in the tourist industry were trying to revive that sector."

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Baseball, bobsledding and a place for Francophiles 

Described as the place where "history rubs shoulders with modernity," Montreal was hailed as both "a city of fine buildings" and the place for "ancient ceremonies," growing from "a lonely fort in the forests hundreds of miles from any other colonist's settlement."

But what were the recommended activities for a tourist in 1937? 

An afternoon at the baseball park, the "famous battle-scarred Forum" for a hockey match or the Blue Bonnets racetrack — later named the Hippodrome de Montréal (it closed in 2009 and was bulldozed in 2018).

"A French-Canadian audience roaring the teams to victory — or defeat — is an unforgettable experience. Don't miss it," the booklet said. 

It also recommends the Bonsecours Market, where "the quaint vehicles of the 'habitant'" can still be seen. The market, located in Old Montreal, is still going strong with events, stores and restaurants.

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The French connection was often played up to appeal to Americans, explained Andrée-Anne Pelletier, a spokesperson for Tourisme Montreal.

That was partly because Montreal struggled to find an identity of its own, she said.

"We were comparing [Montreal] to big cities and like Paris. 'The Paris of the New World,' 'The Paris of North America' —we notice that they were promoting the Francophone side of the city."

In the opening pages of the booklet — after one dedicated to hockey — is a list of parks tourists should visit.

The Mount Royal Lookout is noted as a popular spot, as well as Jeanne-Mance Park.

The booklet's take on La Fontaine Park is more downturned and calls it "less spectacular," although still worthwhile.

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As for getting visitors to come in the winter, it praises Montreal's "ideal winter weather in which sunshiny skies, clear invigorating air and equable temperatures mark a majority of the days." 

Skiing is recommended as "the most exhilarating sport in the world — when you can't play golf, perhaps!" and tobogganing, hockey and snowshoeing, among other winter sports get honourable mentions. 

"Life, naturally, moves here at no slow pace," then-mayor Adhémar Raynault wrote in the foreword. 

Raynault served as mayor from 1936 to 1938 and from 1940 to 1944. 

"No matter what the tourist seeks to make his stay away from home memorable, he will find it in Montreal: historical background, thriving industry, sports, both summer and winter, gorgeous scenery, and a heart-warming hospitality," he said.

He also appeals to Americans by mentioning that the founders of Louisiana, New Orleans and Detroit all came from Montreal. 

A city struggling to recover

But away from the glitz and glamour of downtown, not all was well in Montreal, according to history professor Lindeau.

City of Montreal

In 1937, the Depression, coupled with droughts on the farms out West, meant wheat exports were down, hitting the city's transportation sector, Lindeau said. Meanwhile, citizens didn't have money to buy the goods Montreal manufacturers were churning out.

"There was a ripple effect in all the areas," Lindeau said, estimating that a third of the city's population was unemployed at the height of the depression.

The city of Montreal itself was also deeply in debt, he added.

"By the end of the decade, Montreal — and Canada in general — had not completely recovered," he said.

"The gross domestic product [in 1939] was not even at the level it had attained 1929. So it was a very long, very difficult depression."

But Lindeau said most tourists likely never saw that side of Montreal. The worst of it was felt in the working-class areas — far from where the booklet recommended.

"If they stayed only in the downtown area… they might have seen a bustling city."

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Pelletier said that, while they can't know exactly how many people came to Montreal in 1937, they do know that 18,000 tourists crossed the Quebec border in 1919.

Today, that number exceeds 11 million, annually.

"The difference [today] is that Montreal is no longer just the 'Paris of the New World,'" she said. "Montreal has an identity... as a cultural metropolis, and the culture of Montreal is unique."

Tourism Montreal is celebrating its 100th anniversary in October. More on the history of Montreal's tourism industry is available on its website.

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