Kitty Foyle and Philadelphia, the “grand homey old town”

Kitty Foyle and Philadelphia, the “grand homey old town”

Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel Kitty Foyle is best known from the film of the next year, which gave Ginger Rogers a chance to shine (and to win an Academy Award) in a dramatic role. The movie is still well known, probably for that reason, but it should not put the book entirely in the shade, or be seen as a substitute for it. First, the account of the heroine’s big love affair, frank though not explicit, was tidied up for the film. Second, the love affair, which took place mainly in 1929 and 1930, is dressed up in the film as though it had taken place in 1940. And, third, the Philadelphia flavor of the book was inevitably diluted on the screen.

The sections of the book that take place in Chicago and New York, not to mention the ones that take place in the invented town of Manitou, Illinois, are not as full of minute particulars as the Philadelphia sections. Here is a list done up by alphabet: Marian Anderson; the Assembly; Bainbridge Street and South Street, important in the African American community; the Betsy Ross House; the Billy Penn statue on City Hall, “looking towards Frankford”; “grand old” Broad Street Station, lately reduced to “a turn-around for the suburban trains”; the Camden Bridge and Camden Ferry; the Centennial celebration of 1876, at which Kitty’s grandfather bought a “wonderful gilt and glass clock”; the Chestnut Street and Walnut Street shopping areas and the “Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce and Pine” rhyme; Conshohocken, a nearby town whose name is used by Mr. Foyle as a substitute curse word; the Curtis Publishing Company; the El or “L”; Fish-House Punch; Frankford with its asylum for the insane, Carnegie Library, cricket club (Mr. Foyle’s former place of work), high school, historical society, Friends Meeting House, and tanneries; Frankford Creek; Benjamin Franklin (to the Main Line, “still a boy from the wrong side of the tracks”); Franklin Field; Germantown (the home of Kitty’s mother, an Upsal known to her husband as his “little chicken from Wissahickon”), considered “pretty much top shelf” compared with Frankford: “[Y]ou can lick the Boches but you can’t lick Germantown,” in the words of Kitty’s father; the green country town, an expression Wyn Strafford evokes in the park rather than in town, and Kitty attributes to someone important, “[p]robably not John Wanamaker”; long-lost Kelly Street near Tenth and Chestnut; the Liberty Bell; the Mercantile Library; [S.] Weir Mitchell; Neshaminy Falls; the North Philadelphia Station; “the Pennypacker place”; the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, which Kitty considers a typical name for an old Philadelphia institution; the Racquet Club; Rittenhouse Square; the Sesqui celebration of 1926, a “terrible flop” in the eyes of Kitty’s father (and others); the Shooter’s Parade; the State House (known to outsiders as Independence Hall); [Leopold] Stokowski; Bayard Taylor; Thirtieth Street Station, the usurper of the prerogatives of Broad Street Station; Torresdale and the Torresdale Filter Plant; and the Union League. The movie shows City Hall from the air and the Public Ledger for sale in New York, and mentions Griscom Street, the Bellevue-Stratford, and of course the everlasting Assembly. That’s about all.

The book’s references make the story seem real. Go to Griscom and Orthodox today, and you can see nearby the Friends Meeting House, the Historical Society of Frankford in the 1930 building that was put up with the help of fund-raising letters typed by Kitty, and the “7 M[iles] to P” marker preserved at the society.

7 M to P marker, Frankford Historical Society

Until 2012, you could have seen the Methodist church she mentions .

There are plenty of modest two-story row houses near the intersection, but none of clapboard, like the Foyles’ house.

The Philadelphia references ground the story in facts, but there is also a mental geography of Philadelphia. Frankford, Germantown, and the Broad Street and Thirtieth Street stations have been mentioned. Elkins Park, Merion, and Oak Lane are described as areas for well-off people intimidated by the Main Line. The last names of the upper-class characters are right off the map: Bala, Berwyn, Gladwyn (as in Gladwyne), Kennett, Narberth, Strafford. Much of the mental geography has to do with public transit, as in the contrast between the El, with its “Maggie Street” station near Kitty’s home, and the snobway or suburban trains. As a Scotch-Irish working girl in love with a Princeton man from Old St. David’s, she is entitled to make a crack about Main Liners who are “just lovely with the lower classes as long as they don’t go beyond their proper station, which would be probably Overbrook.”

Now to the advertisements. First, a slight detour to the first paragraph. To show what Kitty Foyle might have had in her closet when she met Wyn Strafford (May 25, 1929), here are some advertisements from the Inquirer of that day.

Actually, these are not the outfits of a working-class girl of eighteen. Here are some less extravagant outfits, including dresses worn by the lower-middle-class women of the Bungle family. The advertisement from the Walnut Street Theater program is included because it seems that Kitty was wearing a skirt and blouse when Wyn met her.

Here, in honor of the sport that brought Kitty and Wyn together, are ads for companies, not mentioned in the book, that outfitted cricket players.

Kitty’s father, a “groundkeeper and coach at one of the swell cricket clubs,” took her to the one in Germantown, where she enjoyed “grass perfume. . . . a Philadelphia kind of smell” as the grass was cut, with a horse mower like the ones in the advertisement above.

And here is a business college in Center City, perhaps the one where Kitty was trained. The location is several blocks from Market, where Kitty and her friends from class used to have drugstore lunches. But Morley does mention the college in Travels in Philadelphia (1920).


Here are some of the businesses mentioned in the novel.

“Dooner’s famous old hotel [23-29 South Tenth Street] for men, ladies admitted only in the dining room, was [a] big name.” Mr. Foyle usually went there by himself, and occasionally quarreled, as a “Londonderry Protestant,” with Irish Catholics. When the hotel closed in 1924, he received some silverware and a fish salver from the place, and a painting of a bull terrier. (This male retreat lacked the usual paintings of nude women, a circumstance he attributed to its popularity with priests.)

The comics featured on the fan are right at home in the world of Kitty Foyle. Bringing Up Father presented a “shanty Irish” immigrant, suddenly wealthy, who tried to escape from the refinements and the rolling pin of his “lace-curtain” wife, in order to carouse with his old friends, not at Dooner’s, but at Dinty Moore’s. Winnie Winkle was the first working girl to star in a strip, while Jane Arden led a more glamorous life as a reporter. Incidentally, both characters inspired well-dressed paper dolls.  As a schoolgirl, Kitty had played with paper outfits and paper dolls with names from the society columns. The dolls lived in a Dream House furnished with ads cut out of Curtis Publishing Company magazines.

INQUIRER, 25 May 1929; Gimbel’s. Mr. Foyle was at first reluctant to have a radio.

Gimbel’s, where Kitty bought “a housewife apron and some dusters” to clean up the office of Philly magazine, Wyn’s attempt to create a New Yorker for Philadelphia, was apparently not on the radar of the upper classes, according to the Town Crier, a nonfictional imitation of the New Yorker from 1930. (Please see The Fictional Life and the Afterlife of TOWN CRIER OF PHILADELPHIA and The TOWN CRIER and the Talkies: Jay Emanuel and Other Reel Fellows on this site.) We are told in the issue for May 19 that a coachman for a Main Line family was bewildered when a new daughter-in-law asked to be taken to Gimbel’s. He was unfamiliar with the store, because the family “has always shopped at Strawbridge & Clothier’s” (a store Kitty does not, as I recall, mention). Perhaps the daughter-in-law needed to be “trimmed up” and educated to be a proper wife for an Old Philadelphia Family, as Wyn’s family planned to “polish off” Kitty’s “rough Frankford edges.”

Of the two Hanscom advertisements, the first is here for the date, and the second for the addresses, for it gives what may be the address of the new Hanscom’s bakery that was to come to Frankford Avenue around 1925: “Cinnamon buns! Now I knew I was in Philly again.” That was probably the bakery at 4646 Frankford Avenue, not the one at Frankford Avenue and Bridge Street. If Kitty had come to Frankford in 1956, she would have found a corset shop at 4646 Frankford. Perhaps that was a normal progression.

John Wanamaker catalogue for spring and summer 1901

Kitty’s mother and aunt thought that living in a house without lace curtains in the front window was as bad as living in sin. But her father said it was a good thing that “old Sundayschool John Wanamaker” (who was indeed a founder, promoter, and administrator of Sunday Schools) did not know that lace curtains were the first thing madams bought to “furnish up a house of call.”

Kitty’s mother threw out a tattered sofa cushion dear to her husband from years of use, and replaced it with a new one from Snellenburg’s. The Snellenburg collars (dated only to the days when a collar cost 29 cents) are a reminder that Kitty was a White Collar Girl. She makes a train journey in a tan dress with white collar and cuffs. To the Main Line coachman, Snellenburg’s, “the Thrifty Store for Thrifty People,” would probably have been even more mysterious than Gimbel’s, which was in the middle of the retail scale, between luxury and thrift.


This last image, published in 1931 for use in 1932, shows the body-hugging silhouette that was to replace the look of the 1920s. While the dress might have been more appropriate for her days in Chicago or New York,  it reminds us of Kitty’s work on Wyn’s cricket book and on Philly magazine.

The featured illustration at the start of this page comes from the “real” Philly magazine, Town Crier, for May 19, 1930. Kitty might have chosen dresses like this to make an impression in the Philly office. I hope the caption–“And it turned out to be a scroll!”–conveys more to you than it does to me.

7 thoughts on “Kitty Foyle and Philadelphia, the “grand homey old town”

  1. I really don’t know anything about life in the US in the early 1900s but I had no idea there were cricket clubs… I often wonder why cricket never became popular in the US.


  2. If we think about today’s Philadelphia sports fans, known for devotion to football and hockey, and not always patient and well mannered, we might not guess that cricket had a persistent following here. But the upper classes tended to follow English customs, and to cling to tradition, unconcerned about appearing sophisticated or up to date. The Philadelphia Cricket Club, still in existence, was founded in the 1850s. That was one of the four main clubs, and there were plenty of others. Advertisements from the early twentieth century offer cricket bats and shirts, clearly meant for the upper classes. But many textile workers came to Philadelphia from the British Isles, and brought their sports with them. The Kensington Quoits Club building survived, though it went on to other uses.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As noted above, I checked out the book from the Free Library on your recommendation here. It’s spectacular, and your notes regarding the mental/geographical map of the city are spot on. A delightful (and intense!) book, fun, snarky and wise; moving, beautifully written and realized. I’m almost afraid to see the film. 🙂
    Thank you!


  4. Thank you for your comments! Sometimes Morley’s ability to get inside the mind of a woman is alarming. The movie is entertaining, but has little footage of Philadelphia, and softens some of the rougher elements of the plot. Ethnic bias is toned down, for example.


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