posted in transit
In the second week of February 1912 Toronto commuters were met with cryptic text on streetcars: “Have You Seen Her?” Alongside this legend was a pen and ink portrait of a baby-faced young woman.
The following week, The Toronto Daily Star printed a follow-up teaser in its pages.
The Adventures of Kitty Cobb was introduced as a serial picture story of “a pure-minded country girl who comes to the city to earn her fortune”. All subscribers of the new and improved Toronto Star Weekly would be able to keep tabs on as the ingénue‘s fortunes weekly on page seven of the General News section throughout that spring.
Although created by an American illustrator, the story would feature characters, settings and vignettes familiar to Toronto readers. On February 18th and 24th The Adventures… was proclaimed by the Star as having the highest artistic merit and cultural relevance.
The picture serial riffed on a movie genre popular with working class female audiences. Based on treatments of dime store novels, they featured girls of humble origins that stumbled into adventure and romance.
In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, Nan Estad describes how the cheap novels and movies provided escapist narratives that were a crucial counterpoint to the drudgery of factory work. The power of the world within the screen, she argues, was reinforced through the movie stars’ faces gazing down on pedestrians as they passed posted movie bills.
By using an illustrated serial drama to trigger interest in the weekend edition, The Star highlighted the entertainment-oriented print media experience it was offering to its readers and advertisers. Richly illustrated with photography, illustrations and cartoons it was both a program to and a representation of the spectacle of city life. Marketing it on streetcars was a stroke of genius, reinforcing the brand as a city-oriented leisure product.
the female market and judgement of female behavior
Courting women consumers of interest to major advertisers, the weekend edition highlighted human interest content over the standard weekday fare of politics, sports and financial stories. A new Star Weekly Woman’s Section supplemented the typical writing on fashion, beauty and health, society, and child development in daily editions with more substantial offerings. Providing work to such writers as Marjory MacMurchy and Margaret Bell, it covered the social improvement, missionary and charity work of Toronto’s numerous churches and service organizations and tracked the agendas and campaigns of the public health and education departments.
The publication also gave the space and indirect means for women readers to puzzle the tensions of their position in a patriarchal society. One way was through repeated invocation of the “girl in the city” trope under which lurked a spectrum of attitudes that swayed and shifted in the years just before the First World War.
Kitty Cobb creates mayhem in each situation she enters. For the more conservative, moralistic readers her story was a delightful confirmation of the ways in which a clue-less beauty triggers the worst male behavior. On the other hand, there are moments that would have found favor with younger more progressive readers. Kitty Cobb intuits, while gazing admiringly at a young man in the streetcar, that the flip side of danger for women in daily motion and chance meeting with males is the pleasure of looking at them without their being aware of it.
The light satirical treatment of the “problem” of young women free of supervision in the city would not have been possible the following year amidst the alarm over the supposed danger of white slavery. In 1913 a similar Montgomery Flagg serial was featured in the same paper. Reflecting a far more censorious attitude towards the young woman protagonist, this drama revolved around the many flaws of a middle class girl spoiled by an over-indulgent mother.
By the summer of 1914 when “the girl problem” was not felt as acutely, two single-frame picture stories by another illustrator in The Toronto Sunday World celebrate, from a male perspective, how the potential for romance was understood to have increased exponentially with the movement essential to modern life.
To weigh-in as a strong competitor in the new market for populist leisure-time reading in a city dominated by the Lord’s Day Alliance, Toronto papers offered content reflecting diverging views on what constituted proper conduct among young women.
As a character of humble origins whose adventure quest exposes the follies of society, Kitty Cobb bears some relation to Fielding’s picaresque novel hero Tom Jones. However, The Adventures of Kitty Cobb is less an exploration of morality than an excuse to embrace the comedic juxtapositions of characters in familiar situations. Unlike the Girl Adventure movie heroines who triumph in the end, Kitty is rescued by her country suitor and brought back to her proper domestic fold. In its supercilious point of view, arch humour and fashionable visual language, the drama serial was designed to make the weekend paper subscribers feel they were “front of the line” in the unfolding theatre of city life.
Here, practically in its entirety is the hit print drama serial of 1913 Toronto freshly scanned from the microfilm of the Toronto Public Library’s Toronto Star Newspaper Reading Room.