What do a group of academics, anarchists, writers, socialists, panhandlers, prostitutes, and religious zealots have in common?
In the early days of the twentieth century you could find them all gathered at the Dill Pickle Club, a bohemian hub for free expression founded in 1915 by a small group of Industrial Workers of the World members, including club manager Jack Johnson. The Dill Pickle opened in a dilapidated barn on Tooker Alley, just southeast of Washington Square Park and the Newberry. The commandment on the door to “step high stoop low and leave your dignity outside” conveyed to visitors what awaited them inside the club.
The club evolved from a venue for weekly forums on social concerns to a stage for mock debates, lectures, theatrical performances, and jazz dances. Visitors might have rubbed elbows or shared a coffee with Clarence Darrow, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Lucy Parsons, William Carlos Williams, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Reitman, Emma Goldman, and Upton Sinclair.
Many Dill Pickle regulars also spoke at Washington Square Park, which had achieved status in the early twentieth century as Chicago’s hotbed of free speech. Speakers mounted soapboxes to air political opinions, discuss social grievances, and share art, eliciting responses from the rambunctious audiences. The park became popularly known as “Bughouse Square” because of its reputation for attracting oddballs, radicals, and bohemians, whom more conventional Chicagoans considered slightly crazy. Although the club permanently closed its doors during the Great Depression and soapbox activity in Washington Square Park dwindled during the 1960s, the Newberry created the Bughouse Square Debates in 1986 as an annual event in the park. The contemporary program commemorates the Dill Pickle Club’s open forum by honoring the best soapbox speaker with the Dill Pickle Award. Join us Saturday, July 27 for an afternoon of rollicking free speech and this year’s Main Debate: “How much is it worth to the city to keep the Chicago Cubs?”