Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside
During the first decades of the 20th century the cultures of urban industrial life came to the fore in the United States, out-shining, if not completely eclipsing, the cultures of the small-town and farm. Although nearly half of Americans continued to live in rural areas until World War II, the population and cultural trends pointed toward the city. Like people in other parts of the world who were experiencing a similar transition, some Americans worried about the fate of their political, economic, and cultural traditions under these new conditions. Others embraced change as an opportunity to escape and transform traditions they considered outmoded.
Escape was definitely on the minds of those who visited the Dill Pickle Club. To get to there, patrons were told to climb through a hole the wall at 859 N. State Street, and walk down Tooker Alley to a doorway under an orange light marked “Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside.” Open it, and follow the stairway down to the basement to dance, watch modernist plays, listen to lectures and debates, or just talk.
This was the Dill Pickle Club, a fixture of Chicago’s bohemian northside from World War I to the early 1930s. You might find yourself rubbing elbows with some of Chicago’s most famous authors and intellectuals like Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, or Vachel Lindsay. You might see Lucy Parsons, the widow of one of the executed Haymarket anarchists, or Ralph Chaplin who penned the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever.” Or you might sit next to a gangster, a hobo, or a prostitute.
All that remains of the Club today is a small archival collection preserved at the Newberry Library. But this curious little collection is a piece of a much bigger picture. It is a documentary fragment of the social, artistic, and intellectual ferment that swirled through Chicago, New York, London and Paris in the first half of the twentieth century.