Ink-Slinger Profiles: Fontaine Fox

Fontaine Talbot Fox Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 4, 1884, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia (1992). His father was a Louisville lawyer, editorial writer, and book reviewer, and his mother’s name was Mary. One of his childhood artistic endeavors was recounted in the New York Sun, May 2, 1915: 

Fontaine Fox, whose drawings are well known to readers of many bright newspapers, was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1884. Fox relates that at the age of seven he nearly completed a mural decoration which caused considerable comment at the time.

“Our parlor,” he continues, “had just been repapered in a solid color, of a tint light enough to make a very good background for a drawing. Starting at one corner of the wall I drew a double header freight train consisting of more than 200 cars and six cabooses, and extending around three sides of the room. I had just started to draw the clouds of smoke naturally pouring out of the locomotive when my father and mother unexpectedly entered. Then to my surprise and sorrow I was hurried to the bathroom, where a promising artistic career received its very greatest setback.

In the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, he was the oldest of five children. His father was a widower. The family lived in Louisville at 2024 Brook Street. According to the encyclopedia, he graduated, in 1904, from the Louisville Male High School, where he was on the school newspaper staff and served as literary journal artist. He also worked as a reporter for the Louisville Herald. In college he was a political cartoonist for the newspaper. In 1905 and 1906 Fox attended Indiana University where he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He contributed cartoons and caricatures to the school’s yearbook, The Arbutus

The Arbutus, 1905
Some of his cartoons are “signed” with a fox or fox head.

The Arbutus, 1906
Below, right: Fox self-portrait

In the Sun article, he said, “Of course I entered college—Indiana University it was—and of course I quit when I had the offer of a job to draw pictures for a Louisville paper at the unbelievable salary of fifteen per. Later I worked for another Louisville paper [Times], and when I had the chance to go to a Chicago paper I jumped at it.” 

He was listed in Fox Caron’s Louisville Directory 1909 as a cartoonist at the Louisville Times and he resided at 2024 South Brook. His lawyer father was listed above him. 

Fox has not been found in the 1910 census. The Breckenridge News (Cloverport, Kentucky), February 23, 1910, reported: “Fountain [sic] Fox, cartoonist of Louisville Times, has gone to Chicago to accept a position on The Chicago Evening Post.” His Toonerville Folks appeared in the Post beginning February 19, 1910. The early panels did not have the title Toonerville Folks, instead they had one-shot titles interspersed with running titles. He contributed illustrations to Charles Wheeler Bell’s The Good Old Days (1911); it can be downloaded here (near the upper right corner, click on the gear for the menu). The San Francisco Call, August 6, 1911, said: 

Charles Wheeler Bell is state insurance commissioner of Kentucky. In his odd hours he has written some thoughts which are now collected in a little booklet entitled, “The Good Old Days.” These is much good humored fun and even a little satire at the expense of the old times compared to the customs and habits of the present day. Much of it is broad farce, but there is a little wholesome sentiment at the close of the book. It is catchily illustrated with line drawings by Fontaine Fox. 

One of his Evening Post cartoons of Teddy Roosevelt was reprinted in Cartoons Magazine, May 1912, which in turn was reprinted in Bully!: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (2011). In the New York Sun, he explained the genesis of one of his cartoon characters. 

The drawn character of “Thomas Edison, Jr., with which Fox has been identified, is the result of something he saw a small boy do one day. This small boy’s mother and another woman were standing on the sidewalk trading the latest choice morsels of neighborhood scandal when the youngster slipped away on a tour of investigation. He went up an alley, and suddenly reappeared with the dirtiest, most dilapidated old derby hat anybody ever saw jammed down over his curls. 

“I stood there watching the scene,” Mr. Fox continues, “and when the little chap came into view his mother nearly threw a fit. Then she hurried him across the street to a barber shop and had him shampooed. I made a drawing of this bit of actual life and with much apprehension turned in in to the art department of the Chicago paper, where is was used on the front page. The managing editor told me to go ahead and get the same youngster into more trouble of various kinds and I’ve been doing it since then.”

Advertising & Selling, October 1915

The Times-Democrat and the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), May 4, 1914, reprinted one of his Louisville Herald cartoons (below). 

The New York Sun, April 28, 1915, noted Fox’s marriage. 

Chicago, April 27.—Fontaine T. Fox, Jr., cartoonist of the New York Evening Sun, was married here last Thursday [April 22] to Miss Edith Elizabeth Hinz. Mr. and Mrs. Fox started immediately after the wedding for New York. 

The Sigma Chi Fraternity Manual and Directory (1916) listed his business address: “Fontaine Talbot Fox, Jr., Cartoonist, 373 4th Ave., New York, N.Y.” The first cartoon with Toonerville Trolley in the title was published in the Times-Picayune on February 9, 1916, and in other papers on the eleventh. (The story of the name is here; scroll down to November 15, 2006)

Don Marquis acknowledged Toonerville Trolley with a poem published in various newspapers in July and August 1916. The poem was included in Marquis’ Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith (1921). Fox’s favorite author was named in the Washington Herald (DC), April 21, 1918: 

Fontaine Fox, clever cartoonist, who draws “Funny Folks” for The Herald and a score of other leading newspapers throughout the country, laid his pen down in his palatial office up New York way the other afternoon to tell Bookdom readers about his literary likes and dislikes. At least it is customary to deal both the likes and dislikes, but Mr. Fox proved to be exceptional, in that he has so little time to read that he only chooses matter which particularly attracts him, and thus never finds it necessary to voice any adverse rumblings in regard to this pleasing form of recreation. 

“O. Henry is my favorite author,” Mr. Fox confided soon after he opened up on the book subject. “I read and re-read his stories and it seems to me I will never tire of this author’s inimitable style. 

“Then I am partial to many of our so-called popular present-day writers. 

“Unlike most cartoonists I do not peruse the newspapers carefully. Of course if I drew those sort of cartoons which are known as timely ones I would follow them closely, but from other sources I am afraid I neglect them fearfully in view of their vast current event importance at the present time. 

“My drawing takes the early part of my days and it is only in afternoon after a nap that I really get a good opportunity to read. There are good many excellent volumes on my shelves which I anticipate enjoying and in the meantime I suppose I will continue a practice of long standing—that of snatching time between sketches to follow a couple of our best standard magazines.” 

Fox was an avid golfer. The New York Sun, July 14, 1918, said he won the club handicap cup, at the Northampton Country Club, Port Washington, L.I., for a third time, and his name was the first to be inscribed on the trophy. (A photo of the swinger was published in the New York Tribune, September 4, 1921.) Two months later he signed his World War I draft card on September 12. He lived at 20 Vanderventer Avenue, Port Washington, New York. His occupation was cartoonist for the Wheeler Newspaper Syndicate, 373 4th Avenue, New York, New York. His description was medium height and slender build with blue eyes and light-colored hair. 

The 1920 census and 1925 New York State Census recorded him in North Hempstead, Nassau County, New York at 45 Carleton Avenue, where he lived with his wife and two daughters. In the Literary Digest, August 14, 1920, he told the story of how his kid cartoon, Thomas Edison Jr., came to be and his father’s opinion of him. “It took my father a long while to become reconciled to the absence of a handle at the end of my name. Even now he shakes his head and allows as how cartooning is a queer way to make a living.” The making of the Toonerville Trolley movies was covered in Railroad Magazine, February 1938.

Evening World 4/26/1921

Four of his cartoons were published in the Sigma Chi Quarterly, February 1922. Wesley Stout’s profile of Fox was published in many newspapers including the Oakland Tribune, December 10, 1922, and Olean Evening Herald, May 29, 1923; it can be read here. A few days later, Fox’s self-portrait appeared in the June 2, Evening Herald. Fox was profiled in the Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1928. Next, he claimed to be an inventor in the April 1928 issue of Popular Science.

In 1930 the Fox family remained in North Hempstead but lived on Dogwood Road. The Nevada State Journal, February 2, 1936, published the United Press story which said the original “Toonerville Trolley” had been found. “Fontaine Fox, cartoonist, revealed today the two-mile stretch of track and antiquated cars of the trolley line from here to the New Haven railway station inspired the famous comic….” The New York Times, July 17, 1937, reported the Westchester Electric Railroad Company was going “to substitute buses for the one-man trolley cars that inspired the drawings of Fontaine Fox…” On August 1 the Times reported the town of Pelham, New York becoming Toonerville, for a day, on July 31. “The Pelham Manor street car, which twenty-two years ago inspired Fontaine Fox’s ‘Toonerville Trolley’ cartoons, ended forty years of service tonight….” Fox was greeted by city dignitaries and his cartoon characters, and introduced to James Bailey who was the original “Skipper” at the time Fox got the idea for the cartoon. During dinner at the Pelham Country Club, Fox said he was inspired by watching Skipper in the Pelham line in 1909. “He asserted positively that it was the Pelham line—not trolleys in Louisville, New Jersey and other points that have been represented as the Toonerville prototype—that insipid his cartoon.” The Pelham Sun published a Toonerville Sun final edition with a special cartoon by Fox. 

In the mid-1930s the Van Beuren Studios produced animated Toonerville cartoons. Life published a Kellog’s All-Bran advertisement with the Toonerville Folks in the January 30, 1939 issue.

He was counted twice in the 1940 census, with homes in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Delray Beach, Florida. Fox’s letter and cartoon were printed in the December 9, 1940, Life. He signed his World War II draft card on April 27, 1942. Fox lived in Greenwich at the Ituri Towers, 1 West Elm Street. Coulton Waugh, in his book, The Comics (1947), gave his assessment of Fox’s Toonerville cartoon. On page 120 Waugh explained how Fox used kids and locale to pitch his cartoon to the Chicago Evening Post, and said the “selection of locale” happened in 1908. That year has been cited by some sources as Toonerville’s debut. At that time, Fox was in Louisville, where he developed Toonerville and sold it to the Evening Post, I believe, in 1909. Then he moved to Chicago in early 1910 and the Toonerville cartoon began on February 19.

The Miami Daily News (Florida), February 7, 1955, carried news of Fox’s retirement.

Vero Beach, Feb. 7—Fontaine T. Fox, who drew the “Toonerville Folks” cartoon for newspapers 40 years, has announced his retirement. He said his last drawing will appear in Feb. 12 editions of newspapers.

The “Toonerville Folks” strip, which features a rickety trolley, was one of the earliest comic strips.

Fox, a native of Louisville, Ky., said he planned to “read a little, fish a little and get a little traveling done.”

“I’ll be ending 50 years of slavery at the drawing board,” he said.

The final Toonerville Trolley cartoon was published on February 12, 1955.

An editorial about the decline of trolleys, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 20, 1959, said: “…Thus Pittsburgh slowly follows a national trend which has seen even the most famous streetcar of all, the “Toonerville Trolley”, make its last run, with the death of cartoonist Fontaine Fox in 1955…” On June 27, the Post-Gazette published a letter from the still-living Fox.

Fox passed away August 9, 1964, in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Associated Press obituary was published in many newspapers including the New York Times, the Putnam County Courier, and the Toledo Blade. Images of Fox, a Toonerville movie still, the Toonerville Folks postage stamp and more are here. The Historic Pelham Blog has several posts on Fox and trolleys. 

2 comments on “Ink-Slinger Profiles: Fontaine Fox

  1. Fox has been one of my favorites ever since I saw the anthology that came out in the 70s. The UMass-Amherst library has a copy of Ring Lardner's first book, BIB BALLADS (1915?), illustrated by Fox.

  2. HYPER TRIVIA: Fontaine Fox was the first cartoonist to appear in a talking film, a segment of a 1928 FOX MOVIETONE NEWS episode.

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