Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Return of the Prodigal Song Title - a History and Etymology of "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd Have Baked a Cake!"

If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake! (1950)

Steven D. Price, author of Endangered Phrases, calls this American idiom an, “expression of delighted surprise at finding someone whose appearance was unanticipated.”  

The idiom became popular in the 1950s, in the wake of a #1 hit record by that title, sung by Eileen Barton.  Everyone, it seems, was singing the song in 1950.  If Jesus Christ, himself, had told the parable of the prodigal son in 1950, he might have recorded the song to mark the occasion.  Actual recordings were released by the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger, Eve Young and the Homesteaders, Georgia Gibbs, and Gracie Fields. Years later, Bert tried to appease Cookie Monster by baking him a cake when no cookies were available.    

The sudden popularity of the song and the idiom in 1950 suggest that the expression may have been brand new; when in point of fact, the expression was making its unanticipated return after a nearly thirty-year absence.  It is not clear whether the songwriters intentionally copied an old song title, or were influenced by the subconscious remembrance of a long-forgotten song.  Of the three men credited with writing “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake,” two of them were old enough to have heard songs in the 1920s with nearly identical titles.  Al Hoffman (who also wrote, “Mairzy Doats”) and Clemm Watts (aka Al Trace) were 22 and 24, respectively, in 1924; the same year in which Leslie Jeffries & His Rialto Orchestra released their recording: 

If We’d Known You was Gonna Come, We’d a Surely Baked a Cake (September 1923)  

Larry Schaetzlein and George A. Hill wrote that song in 1923.  Schaetzlein, later known as Larry Shay, became the music director for MGM studios in the early 1930s, where he hired Bing Crosby for his first film role at $50 a day.

(Courtesy of Mike Thomas, you can listen to Leslie Jeffries & His Rialto Orchestra's 1924 recording of "If I Knew You Was Gonna Come, We'd a Surely Baked a Cake".) 

A copyright renewal for Schaetzlein and Hill’s song filed in 1952 suggests that someone may have been trying to capitalize on the new-found popularity of the phrase.  They couldn’t really complain about the borrowed title, however.  Their first song, “Do You, Don’t You, Will You, Won’t You Love Me Too,” written in 1923, was suspiciously similar to the song, “Do You, Don’t You, Will You, Won’t You,” written in 1909.  And, in any case, they first filed for copyright protection for “If We’d a Known You was Gonna Come, We’d a Surely Baked a Cake” in September 1923; two months after William J Ryan wrote: 

Why didn’t you tell us that you were coming, we would have baked a cake (July 1923)

I guess turn-around is fair play.

What’s not clear, however, is whether the expression existed as an idiom before it was a song title.  Did the rival songs of 1923 reflect an idiom already in existence? – or did William J. Ryan coin a new expression?  Did it exist as an idiom before 1950? – or did the popularity of the song, and pithier phrasing of the expression, lead to a revived song title becoming an idiom? 

My sense is that it was not used idiomatically before 1950.  The only evidence I can find of the existence of anything like the idiom before 1950 are the two song titles from the 1920s.  Other than those song titles, I have not been able to find any other examples, or hints, of the idiom before 1950.

If you can find any such evidence – let me know; I might bake you a cake.

UPDATE: May 9, 2016.

Barry Popik, of The Big Apple Online Etymological Dictionary, has alerted me to examples of the expression in use before 1950, but after 1924.  Some of those examples hint at the fact that expression may be even older; and two of the examples credit the popularity of the line to comic actor, Walter Catlett (although they differ in details as to when and in what show).  But whatever the details, and whether or not the expression pre-dates the songs, 1923 seems to have been a watershed year in the popularization of the expression.

In August 1923, an article entitled “Cut Yourself a Slab of Pie and Leave the Cake Alone,” noted that, “[i]n those stirring days they never used to say: ‘If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake,” suggesting that the expression may have been newish.  In April 1927, a Life Magazine theater review remarked that the new play, “Lucky,” was so devoid of entertainment, that, “even Walter Catlett, whose ‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake!’ did so delight me in ‘Lady, Be Good,’ ha[d] no small chance to display his talents.”  An advertisement for Hostess Cakes from 1929 asserted that, “The old-fashioned apology ‘Had I know you were coming, I’d have baked a cake,’ is obsolete in the modern home,” suggesting, perhaps, that the expression was older; although it could just be puffery, pointing out how “modern” pre-made Hostess cakes are (I prefer Ding-Dongs over Ho-Hos). 

The expression was used in Brooklyn in the 1930s:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (New York), May 5, 1934, page 10.
. . . and Winnipeg in the 1940s.
Winnipeg Tribune (Manitoba), June 8, 1944, page 13.

In 1951, after Eileen Barton’s hit song raised the expression to new levels of familiarity in 1950, a newspaper answer-columnist again credited the comic actor, Walter Catlett, with originating the expression in the musical show, So Long Letty:

The Toledo Blade (Ohio), January 15, 1951, page 25.
The two, unrelated attributions to Walter Catlett, separated by nearly twenty-five years, suggests that Walter Catlett may well have played some role in popularizing the expression; whether by singing the song, or voicing the line, on Broadway, Burlesque or Vaudeville.  His role in popularizing the expression seems likely; given the two separate recollections separated by more than two decades.  Walter Catlett did star in both of the plays that later reminiscences associated with the song (Lady Be Good and So Long Letty), but the precise time, place and mode of popularizing the expression is not certain. 

Lady Be Good, written by George and Ira Gershwin, premiered on Broadway on December 1, 1924; and starred Walter Catlett alongside Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele.  The show featured seventeen Gershwin songs; none of them “Baked a Cake” songs.  The show opened long after the first “Baked a Cake” songs were written in mid-1923, so it is unlikely that the expression, or the songs, were first introduced in the play.  But that’s not to say that Catlett couldn’t have used the expression in the play, or added a non-Gershwin “Baked a Cake” song as a “specialty,” as was common at the time. 

So Long Letty

So Long Letty opened in Los Angeles, California in July 1915 and reached New York City in late-1916, after long runs in San Francisco and Chicago, and several shorter stops along the way.  The play was a musical adaptation of Elmer Harris’ comedy, Your Neighbor’s Wife, with words and music by Earl Carroll, who did not write any of the “Baked a Cake” songs from 1923 and 1924.  That’s not to say that he couldn’t have written a “Baked a Cake” song for the play, or that Walter Catlett didn’t say or sing “Baked a Cake” in the show; but there is no corroborating evidence that he did.

So now we know that the expression was used idiomatically between 1923 and 1950; and we do not know whether the expression existed before 1923, or whether a songwriter, playwright or actor coined the expression sometime around 1923.  But it seems likely that Walter Catlett may have had something to do with it. 


If we'd known you was gonna come
  We'd a surely baked a cake

'Cause my sweetie makes them sweet
  And she surely loves to bake

Now, we've got no jelly roll
  So you've put us in a hole

If we'd known you was gonna come
  We'd a surely baked a cake

We'd bake a great big chocolate cake!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Gimme a Shimmy - Hold the Shiver - Why Chicago was a "Toddling Town"

Chicago (that Toddling Town)

Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town . . .
The town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down . . . .

They have the time, the time of their life . . .
I saw a man he danced with his wife,
In Chicago, Chicago, my home town.

Fred Fisher, “Chicago (That Toddling Town),” copyright dated June 15, 1922.

When Fred Fisher wrote “Chicago” in 1922, Chicago was in the throes of a “modern dance” craze.  Following in the footsteps of the Fox Trot and the Shimmy before, everyone was doing “the Toddle.”  “The Toddle” and other modern dances were associated with everything fun about the Roaring Twenties; fast living, speakeasies and Jazz; precisely the sorts of things that pioneering, uptight Evangelist Billy Sunday, of Chicago, wanted to shut down.  Although people in places as far-flung as New York[i] and Paris[ii] had been doing “the Toddle” since as early as June 1920, Chicago appears to have been the epicenter of toddling culture.  

Image from New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In 1921, the year before Fred Fisher called Chicago, “that toddling town,” the Melrose Bros. music publishers of Chicago advertised their newest “toddle tune” from “Toddle Town”:

“Take It Easy”
Now on the market.
MELROSE BROS., Publishers . . . Chicago

The Music Trades, Volume 61, Number 21, May 21, 1921, page 45.

(Update: Chicago was not the first "Toddle Town." - see my post, The Pre-History of "That Toddling Town".)

In 1921, a popular variant of “the Toddle,” “danced with the motion of the hips instead of the feet,” was called “the Chicago”;  a fashion designer named a new gown “the Chicago Toddle”;[iii]  and the Benson Orchestra of Chicago recorded the song, “Toddle – Medley Fox Trot,” (Victor Records, recorded April 11, 1921).  

The Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana), June 17, 1921, page 7.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1922, Feature Section page 7.
Chicago Daily Tribune, March 3, 1921, page 13.

Chicago was also home to the world’s first (and perhaps last?) “Toddle Wedding” where you might see a groom who “danced with his wife” – and the clergyman joined in:

The Washington Times (Washington DC), February 20, 1921, page 1.

The earliest unambiguous reports of the toddle-craze that I could find first appear in mid-1920; but a news report of the difficulties faced by Chicago on the first day of a transit strike in late-July, 1919, may be an early allusion to Chicago’s roll as progenitor of the “Toddle;” or it may be just a happy coincidence:

Chicago, July 30. – Like an infant, Chicago toddled today.  Because of the car strike, business crept where it usually rushed.

The Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat (Keokuk, Iowa), July 30, 1919, page 1.

Despite (or because of) the popularity of “the Toddle,” moralists like the fiery, no-fun, Chicago-based Evangelist Billy Sunday tried to stem the tide.  Several early attempts to suppress “the Toddle” in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois were widely reported in the national press.

“The Toddle” was banned at the University of Illinois:

Dances at the University of Illinois lost all popular favor among the student body following the ban placed on the shimmy, the toddle and other objectionable forms of dancing . . . .

Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer (Connecticut), November 1, 1920, page 12.[iv]

Not to be outdone, Northwestern University soon followed suit:

An eleventh hour ban was placed on the “toddle” last night at the junior prom at Northwestern university . . . .

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 4, 1920, page 17.

But Northwestern quickly relented; at least to a limited extent:

Northwestern will tolerate limited “Toddle” and “Shimmy.”

Rock Island Daily Argus (Illinois), January 13, 1921, page 4.

But following Northwestern’s concessions, and consistent with the Maria Von Trapp corollary (“When God opens one window, he closes another.), the Chicago public schools clamped down on dancing less than one week later:

The “shimmy” and the “toddle” are not proper dances for school entertainments, Superintendent Peter Mortenson ruled today . . . .

Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), January 18, 1921, page 1.

The decision to ban the “Toddle” in Chicago’s schools did not meet with universal approval.  Eliminating the “Toddle” with the “Shimmy” was like Prohibition’s ban on beer along with whiskey – or, perhaps, like throwing the baby-walk out with the bathwater:

The judgment is right as regards the “shimmy,” for it represents terpsichorean delirium tremens, and moral breakdown

But the “toddle,” which is an imitation of an infant’s walk, the sort of dancing that a baby does when its father whistles, is altogether harmless.  The “toddle,” outlawed with the “shimmy,” can sympathize with light beer, which was banished with whiskey – and the whiskey came back wickeder than ever, but the beer didn’t.

The Washington Times (Washington DC), January 19, 1921, page 1.

The administration of the University of Chicago criticized “the Shimmy” and “the Toddle,” but stopped short of an outright ban.  They blamed the “selfishness” of such indulgent dances on a natural reaction to the military discipline many of the students had recently experienced during World War I:

The Washington Times (Washington DC), February 6, 1921, page 1.

The city council of East St. Louis, Illinois, on the other hand, enacted a total ban:

Arizona Republican (Phoenix), February 8 1921 page 2.

Across the river, in St. Louis, Missouri, dancing master, F. Lester Clendenen, voluntarily closed the doors of his dance hall “until public tastes and manners improve,” rather than let his hall become a den of iniquity:

“The ‘toddle,’ or ‘shuffle,’ craze has driven decent people off the dance floor,” he declared. . . . “When young girls come to dances with their bodices cut as low and their skirts as high as possible, and young men enter the ball room with whisky flasks on their hips and a pint or so under their belts, and when such dances as ‘toddle’ and ‘shuffle’ are tolerated, the result is something hard to picture in printable terms. . .

[He] declared the “shuffle,” sometimes referred to as the “Chicago,” to be a strictly St. Louis perversion of the art of Terpsichore.  “I don’t know where it came from,” he declared, “but I do know where it is leading the youth of this city.  St. Louis has gained a nation-wide reputation for vulgarity and license because of it.”

Los Angeles Herald, February 12, 1921, page A-6.

The anti-Toddle forces were not confined to the Midwest.  Soon, students at Barnard self-censored the “Toddle” walk, smoking and cheek-to-cheek dancing (same sex and boy-girl)[v]; the Syracuse Common Council banned the toddle, the camel walk, and the Chicago flop;[vi] and a State Senator in New York introduced a bill to impose a statewide ban on “the ‘shimmy,’ the ‘toddle,’ the ‘bear hug,’ the ‘camel walk,’ and a few other prides of dance halls.”[vii]   In Bayonne, New Jersey, the police were asked to enforce a ban on dances such as “the camel walk, cat step, Frisco, Chicago roll, toddle and shimmy”:

New York Clipper, August 24, 1921.

Cartoons Magazine, Volume 19, Number 5, May 1921, page 839.

The “Toddle”

Despite the best efforts of the moralists to stop the dance, people just kept “toddling” along.  By today’s standards, the “toddle” seems fairly tame.  It appears to have been situated somewhere between the “fox-trot” and the “shimmy” on the spectrum of modern dance.  The Chicago Tribune described the “toddle” as “the shimmy without the shiver;”[viii]  dance instructors in Chicago, trying to wean their students away from more the provocative dances, developed a hybrid step called “the toddle foxtrot”;[ix] and the Benson Orchestra’s song, “Toddle,” was billed as a “Fox Trot Medley.”  

The Topeka State Journal, May 24, 1921, page 1.
 A dancing text published in 1922 describes the “Toddle” as “the Fox Trot with a rise on each foot on each count of every step – except in the figure of the ‘Old Corte’ and ‘the doubles’ – the 1,2,3 at each side.”  Although the authors believed that the “Toddle” was “gradually toddling away,” they included a description of the “Toddle” because people were incorporating its bouncy steps into the regular Fox Trot.[x]  The same book described a variant of “the Toddle” called “the Chicago,” which apparently received a certain amount of attention in the press when it first came out; accounting, perhaps, for Chicago’s reputation as a “Toddling Town”:

For a brief moment the Chicago appeared, which was somewhat similar to the Toddle in its counting, but it was danced with the motion of the hips instead of the feet, so it was quickly relegated to the limbo of forgotten things and is only mentioned here as its initial appearance was heralded by the press as something new.

The dance website,, connects the “Toddle” craze of 1921-1922 to an earlier “Toddle” dance based on something called “the Todalo.”  Contemporary sources point to some sort of continuity from the “Todalo” straight through the “Two-Step,” the first “Toddle,” the “Fox Trot,” and the later, more popular “Toddle.” 

The lyrics of the song, “Toddling the Todalo”, recorded in 1911, refer to “that toddling two-step.”   Recordings of the songs, “Let’s Toddle Fox Trot” and “Toddle All Over Town (Fox Trot)” were released in 1914 and 1915.  By late- 1916, the “Inner-Circle,” an organization devoted to the development of the “modern dance” decreed that, “We Must “Toddle” in 1917.”  They described this early “Toddle” as something akin to the “Schottische”:

The “Toddle” is danced to music in the same tempo as the old schottische . . . .  According to the official description, the new dance consists of a few walking steps, some turns, several running steps, and a jump in the air – and there you are.  It was explained that the “Toddle” came at the end of each figure and was like the “break” that the old time stage dancers were wont to use at the end of their dances.

The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), December 29, 1916, page 7.

In 1918, the Two-Step Publishing Company sold descriptions of two types of “Toddle”:

Ballroom Dances with music and description, 50 c each.

“The Chinese Toddle” fascinating oriental dance, “The Toddle” pleasing dance in schottische rhythm.[xi]

These earlier “Toddles” may or may not be the same or similar to “the Toddle” of the 1920s, but it is clearly in the same tradition; and has the same name as the dance that take the nation by storm four years later, with Chicago in taking the lead.

The roots of the 1911 song, “Toddling the Todalo,” may extend even further back.  Portions of “The Toddle Song,” published in 1903, [xii] bear a strong similarity to portions of “Toddling the Todalo”:

We’ll toddle, we’ll toddle along, With a wad, wad and waddle,
(The Toddle Song – 1903)
Round we go a waddlin’ a toddlin’ a waddlin’ . . .
          (Toddling the Todalo – 1911)

And a tod, tod, toddle, We’ll waddle and toddle along.
(The Toddle Song – 1903)
. . . while we tod, tod, toddle, a Todalo tune.
          (Toddling the Todalo – 1911)

For whatever reason, and by whatever mechanism, “the Toddle” (either the dance or the name) survived long enough, in one form or another, to make a big splash in Chicago in 1921.  Although Fred Fisher immortalized Chicago’s status as “that Toddling Town” in 1922 (with later help from Frank Sinatra), the passing years served to obscure the original meaning of the moniker.  Perhaps more memorable dance crazes of the ensuing years, like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop, helped erase the brief “Toddle” craze from our collective memories. 

But some people remembered.  When the Chicago Tribune published an article with various guesses about how Chicago had earned the title of “ Toddling Town,” dozens of people old enough to remember the dance contacted the paper to set the record straight.[xiii]  You can read their recollections here.  The dance site,, also seems to have gotten it right, as they list “Chicago (That Toddling Town)”  in a list of songs related to “the Toddle.”

But regardless of who is to blame for “the Toddle’s” descent into obscurity, we know that it was not Billy Sunday.  Try as he might, he never could shut Chicago down.

Billy Sunday

Billy Sunday was the most successful evangelical Christian preacher of the early 1920s.  A native of Ames, Iowa, he grew up a Civil War orphan and played professional baseball in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia during the 1880s.  He went through a religious conversion during his baseball years, and was later ordained as a Presbyterian minister. 

Based in Chicago, Billy Sunday built a large following throughout the Midwest, and eventually the entire United States.  He was also one of the most influential advocates of Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920.

He also hated dancing.  The early-1910s brought a spate of dance-bans.  “Modern dances” like the “Turkey Trot,” the “Chicken Flip,” the “Bunny Hug,” the “Bear Hug,” the “Grizzly,” “Tango” and the “Maxixe” (among other “speed dances”) were regularly banned at various times and in various places by aging Victorian moralists who, like Billy Sunday, feared the cultural revolution portended by the new, suggestive dances – much like the anti-Rock and Roll crowd several decades later.

One of Sunday’s anti-dancing anecdotes closely mirrored the old joke about why Baptists won’t have sex standing up – “Because it might lead to dancing”:

A young man and a girl in evening dress sat in a conservatory.  A fountain trickled and gurgled in a marble basin before them.  Palms drooped their long leaves over them.  The light was dim.  Distant music sounded softly.  Suddenly the young man, overcome by the girl’s beauty, seized her in his arms and crushed her madly to his breast.

“Shy, Mr. Travanion,” she said, putting her white hand on his shirt bosom and pushing him coldly away, “you forget yourself.  This sort of thing isn’t proper – here.”

So saying, she took his arm and they went out on the ball room floor and indulged in a maxixe [(one of the “modern dances”)].

Four years later, he was still preaching against the evils of dance –  Kevin Bacon would have had a word or to say to him:

If America would stop dancing and get on its knees before Christ, we can put over the great fight we are making for humanity.

The Washington Herald (Washington DC), February 16, 1918, page 4.

Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), February 20, 1918.

Four years later, the “jazz” and dance scene were still going strong in Chicago – despite the onset of Prohibition. 

“Chicago, that “Toddling” town”

. . . really was the town that

“Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down.”

[i] The Evening World (New York), June 17, 1920, page 28 (“Should a drunken man attempt to dance the Toddle in a public trottery while his wife is home suffereing with boils of the neck?”).
[ii] Chicago Daily Tribune, December 26, 1920, page 4 (In Paris and London it is the same thing.  All the smart cafes are filled with toddlers toddling to the stirring strains of an American jazz band.).
[iii] Great Falls Tribune (Montana), September 4, 1921, page 6.
[iv] The same article appeared in numerous papers across the country.
[v] The Evening World (New York), February 7, 1921, page 15.
[vi] Plattsburgh Daily Press (Plattsburgh, New York), Februry 24, 1921, page 2.
[vii] The Washington Times (Washington DC), February 19, 1921, page 17.
[viii] Chicago Daily Tribune, December 26, 1920, page 4.
[ix] Topeka State Journal (Kansas), May 24, 1921, page 1.
[x] Charles J. Coll, Dancing Made Easy, New York, E. J. Clode, 1922, page 261.
[xi] The Two Step (Buffalo, New York), Volume 28, Number 6, June 1918, page 44.
[xii] Chas. K. Harris’ Complete Songster, Chicago, F. J. Drake, 1903, pages 138-139 (text only; “The music of this song can be obtained form Charles K. Harris, Music Publisher, 31 W. 31st St., New York City. Send for catalogue.”)