W. C. Fields? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Humorous remarks about Philadelphia are often credited to the well-known actor and comic W. C. Fields. In the past the activities and nightlife in Philadelphia were limited because of strict laws. Hence, time seemed to move slowly, and someone created the following quip:
I spent a week in Philadelphia one day.
Was W. C. Fields responsible for this joke?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence for this jest located by QI appeared in 1908 in a magazine called “Life”. The cartoon containing the joke had an elaborate signature affixed, but QI does not know who drew this comical illustration. Two men in bowler hats discussing the city were depicted [LPCB]:
“. . . AND I SPENT A WEEK IN PHILADELPHIA.”
“DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY.”
The quip appeared many times in the following decades but the earliest evidence found by QI of a connection to W. C. Fields did not appear until the 1970s. In 1972 an article in the Washington Post described a social event celebrating the birth date of W. C. Fields [WPWF]
A group of Philadelphia businessmen are throwing a 92d birthday party for the late comedian at a local “Y,” which has a no-liquor rule. They’ll show old Fields films, give guests a chance to kick a stuffed dog and insult a live child—all in an effort to keep alive Philadelphia’s heritage. But ginger ale? It makes it easy to understand what Fields meant when he said that in one night he spent a week in Philadelphia.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Below is a clipping of the cartoon that appeared in Life magazine in 1908 [LPCB]:
In 1909 the joke was presented in a periodical called “The Outlook”. But the writer disagreed with the sentiment because he visited the city during a transportation strike and found that the metropolis was lively [TSTO]:
It was a New Yorker who once said that he “had spent a week in Philadelphia last Wednesday.” The Spectator does not feel that way about the Quaker City since passing through it when the street car strike was on.
In 1913 a version of the remark was printed in “The Fra”, a periodical published by Elbert Hubbard. The article by Hubbard began with the comment: “Philadelphia figures frequently in the funny columns” and went on to state [EHWP]:
It is considered de rigueur to observe facetiously that you spent a week in Philadelphia on Wednesday last.
In 1917 the jest appeared in the reportage of an event honoring a member of the International Typographical Union. A version was used by a speaker while he addressed the honoree. The quip was applied to a different location, Missouri [TJRS]:
R. H. Suttle-
This gentleman was originally from Missouri but instead of having to be shown, he is one of those good fellows who has assisted in showing, I myself, spent a week in Missouri one day and I did not own a beautiful set of cuff buttons like those I now present you.
One reason W. C. Fields is connected to jokes about Philadelphia is because of an article in the June 1925 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Artists who were prominent in 1925 were asked by the periodical to write their own epitaphs, and W. C. Fields reportedly complied. The quip on this fictional stunt gravestone of Fields differed significantly from the words typically ascribed to the funnyman in modern times [VFWF]:
A number of artists, desiring to be saved from the ordinary run of tombstone literature, have here set down their epitaphs. This second batch of epitaphs, like those published in Vanity Fair in its October issue, certainly have the invaluable “personal touch” …
W. C. Fields
I WOULD RATHER BE LIVING IN
In 1946 a variant of the quip using the word “fortnight” instead of “week” appeared in the periodical “The Art Digest” [ADFP]:
Almost everyone has heard of the churlish wag who insisted that he spent a fortnight in Philadelphia one Sunday and who described the city as “a cemetery with lights.”
In 1957 a version of the joke using the nickname “Philly” was printed in the book “Our Philadelphia: A Candid and Colorful Portrait of a Great City” [PSOP]:
Another remark you have heard about Philadelphia is:
“I came to Philly on Sunday but it was closed.”
Still another is:
“Oh sure, I spent a week in Philly one Sunday.”
In April 1971 “The Journal of American Folklore” printed the jest, but it still did not attach the words to W. C. Fields [WPJF]:
There are many other anti-Philadelphia slurs although the comments on its being a “dead” town with little to do or its lack of late night life are no doubt applied to other cities, for example: “I spent a week in Philadelphia one day” or “I was in Philadelphia once, but it was closed.”
In August 1971 the Chicago Tribune commented on the “comedians’ gag” and provided an explanation for the choice of Sunday in some versions of the saying [CTWP]:
On most newspapers, the landing of astronauts on the moon is a story for the front pages. Not on Variety; the show business weekly. Do you know what made the front page of Variety this week? A story that says you now can buy a drink on Sunday in Philadelphia. Naturally. That’s because the new ruling kills the old comedians’ gag: “I spent a week in Philadelphia last Sunday.”
In 1972 the joke was credited to W. C. Fields in a story printed in the Washington Post. The details were given near the beginning of this article. In 1975 a version of the remark was attributed to Fields in an AP newswire story printed in The Hartford Courant [HCWF]:
Fields is also generally credited with originating such lines as “I spent a week in Philadelphia last night,” and “I went to Philadelphia last Sunday, but it was closed.”
In conclusion, this jape has a long history that began by 1908. The earliest instances were targeted at Philadelphia, but there is no significant support for crediting W. C. Fields as the creator. The first ascription to Fields located by QI was dated many years after his death.
[LPCB] 1908 April 2, Life, [Cartoon showing two men conversing with a caption mentioning Philadelphia], Page 364, Life Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view; also ProQuest Periodicals) link
[WPWF] 1972 January 31, The Washington Post, Times Herald, “Personalities: What? Ginger Ale?”, Page B2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
[TSTO] 1909 June 19, The Outlook, The Spectator, Page 400, Column 2, The Outlook Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[EHWP] 1913 July, The Fra: A Journal of Affirmation, Advertisement: Hoskins, Stationers and Engravers by Elbert Hubbard, Page xxi, Column 1, Volume 11, Published by Elbert Hubbard, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[TJRS] 1917 September, Typographical Journal, Proceedings of the Sixty-Third Session of The International Typographical Union, [Held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on August 13 to 18, 1917], Page 92, Volume 51, Supplement to The Typographical Journal], International Typographical Union, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books full view) link
[VFWF] 1925 June, Vanity Fair, A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs, Start Page Page 50, Quote Page Page 51, Column 3, [W.C. Fields tombstone epitaph], Condé Nast, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
[ADFP] 1946 November 15, The Art Digest [later renamed Arts Magazine], Prints in Philadelphia, Quote Page 19, Art Digest, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
[PSOP] 1957, Our Philadelphia: A Candid and Colorful Portrait of a Great City by Frank Brookhouser, Section Prologue, Page 1, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
[WPJF] 1971 April-June, The Journal of American Folklore, A Study of Ethnic Slurs: The Jew and the Polack in the United States by Alan Dundes, Start Page 186, Quote Page 189-190, Volume 84, Number 332, Published by: American Folklore Society. (JSTOR) link
[CTWP] 1971 August 21, Chicago Tribune, Will Leonard column, Subsection: Stop the Press, Page 10, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[HCWF] 1975 April 20, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Uses Fields To Change View, [AP newswire], Page 3A, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)