Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Toddle Town" - the Pre-history of "That Toddling Town"

Earlier Toddle-Towns

Chicago, known as “that Toddling Town” or “Toddle Town” in the early 1920s, was not the first “Toddle Town.”  There are at least three references to “Toddletown” or “Toddle Town,” one from England and two from the United States, between 1850 and 1915.  Whereas Chicago was called “Toddle Town” primarily for its close association with the popular dance-craze, “the  Toddle” (see my earlier post,  Why Chicago was a “Toddling Town”), “Toddle” meant something different with respect to the three earlier “Toddle Towns.”  “Toddletown” referred to provincial villages in the 1850s and 1870s, and “Toddle Town” likely referred to small children – toddlers – in 1914. 

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

The few-and-far between examples of the expression in print may suggest that the similarity is mere coincidence.  On the other hand, the three examples, spaced over several decades, may suggest that the expression may have been idiomatic, if not overly common.  If it were idiomatic, then the use of “Toddle Town” in reference to Chicago may have been understood, at least by some, as a double-meaning allusion to the city; the city of “the Toddle” dance, and a provincial or young city.


The word, “Toddle,” meaning “to run or walk with short, unsteady steps,” dates to about 1600.  An earlier sense of the word, meaning “to toy, play,” dates to about 1500.  The origin is unknown, but may be related to “totter.”[i]

For some unknown reason, the word, “toddle,” enjoyed a period of popularity in the 1820s:

Tune. – ‘The Grinder.’

WORDS, like fashions, have each had their day,
  ‘Bang up,’ ‘that’s the go,’ ‘Tippy,’ ‘Twaddle;’
‘Keep it up,’ ‘Go it boys,’ ‘Dash away,’
  But now they must give up to toddle.

   Terri heigho, heigho,
Tho’ wise ones their heads may be noddling,
   The word that is not all the go,
Go wherever you will, sir, is toddling.
. . .
Buonaparte, as great as may be,
  With victory so loaded his noddle,
That he swore he’d drive us in the sea,
  But Wellington’s forc’e him to toddle.

   Terri heigho, heigho, &c.

Now, my song, sirs, I’ll bring to an end,
  By telling what runs in my noddle;
That while I have you for my friend,
  Contented thro’ life I shall toddle.

The Gallimaufry, London, J. Smith, 1828.

Little Toddletown

 “Little Toddletown” was the name of a sleepy, provincial hamlet in a comic story published in 1853.[ii]  It is the kind of story in which a journalist is named “Penfeather,” a priest is named “Genuflex,” a socialist reformer is named “Soshalish Gash,” and a landowner is named “Squire Graspland.”  It seems safe to presume that the author intended for the town’s name to be similarly suggestive. 

Bentleys Miscellany, Volume 33, 1853, page 549.

The story revolves around a journalist who is lured away from London, to work for a start-up, politically centrist newspaper in “Little Toddletown.”   He winds up embroiled in a violent political struggle between the “Greens” and the “Blues,” which prompts him to give up the writer’s life to try his luck in the Australian gold fields. 


In the comic story, “Paste,” published in 1873,[iii] “Toddletown” again refers to an out-of-the-way provincial town.  Mr. Johnson, a “provincial tailor,” makes a small fortune supplying uniforms to the Union during the American Civil War, and sells his business before the prices fell, realizing a handsome profit.   

Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine (Philadelphia), volume 87, Number 517, July 1873, page 63.

Drunk with their new riches, his wife talks him in to selling their home and their “old-fashioned furniture and shabby clothes” in “Toddletown,” and to move to New York City where they might live in a manner suited to their new-found wealth.  Through a series of misadventures, the new-moneyed Mrs. Johnson (now going by the more high-class name of Mrs. Jeanfils) is swindled by imposter-nobles, and loses a big chunk of their money investing in a fabulous gem that turns out, in the end, to be nothing but “Paste.”  She learns her lesson, and they move back to “Toddletown” where they live happily ever after.

Toddletown Trails

In 1914, Judd Mortimer Lewis, “[t]he best known of all Texas newspaper poets,”[iv] published a collection of poems entitled, Toddle-Town Trails.  One observer called the book, “about the sweetest little book of child-poems you have ever read.”[v]  Although I have not read the book, the following description of Lewis’ favorite subject matter suggests that it may be an allusion to young children; toddlers:

He writes principally about babies, and pretty young girls . . . . He sings so many songs about babies, in fact, that he might be called the laureate of babyhood.  It is his own hearthstone and his own baby daughters that have furnished him most of his themes in this poetic realm of babyhood.

Leonidas Warren Payne, A Survey of Texas Literature, New York, Rand, McNally & Company, 1928, page 53.

Leonidas Warren Payne, A Survey of Texas Literature, New York, Rand, McNally & Company, 1928, page 53.

That Toddling Town

In 1922 Fred Fisher immortalized Chicago as “that Toddling Town” when he wrote Chicago (that “Toddling Town”).  At the time, “toddling” would likely have been understood, primarily, as a reference to the dance “the Toddle,” a dance closely associated with Chicago (see my earlier post, Why Chicago was a “Toddling Town”).  It is possible, however, that it may also have been intended, or understood by some, as having a double meaning, as either a provincial town or young city, or both. 

You be the judge.

[ii] “Love and Literature, and How they Drove Paul Penfeather, Author and Journalist, to the “Diggings,” Bentley’s Miscellany (London), volume 33, 1853, page 546.
[iii] Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine (Philadelphia), Volume 87, Number 517, July 1873, page 63.
[iv] Leonidas Warren Payne, A Survey of Texas Literature, New York, Rand, McNally & Company, 1928, page 53.
[v] The Houston Post, October 18, 1914.

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