A Brief History of the Dill Pickle Club

Portrait of Jack Jones, 1919
Portrait of Jack Jones, 1919Szukalski, Stanislaus
A Night in Bohemia: Dill Pickle Masked Ball
A Night in Bohemia: Dill Pickle Masked Ball
Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside: Entrance to the Dill Pickle Club, 18 Tooker Alley
Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside: Entrance to the Dill Pickle Club, 18 Tooker Alley

>The Dill Pickle Club was the brainchild of one John Archibald “Jack” Jones, a Canadian who had worked as a miner, an itinerant laborer, and an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World.

Jones had briefly been married to the charismatic young IWW speaker Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. They lived with a group of Wobblies on Chicago’s near northside within walking distance of the outdoor open forum in Washington Square Park, known as Bughouse Square because it was a center for radical speakers. Flynn recalled in her memoir that Jones spent his days in the Newberry Library researching a complex plan of industrial organization.

Around 1912 Jones quit the IWW along with a group of like-minded radicals in a dispute over tactics. In Chicago, he circulated within the anarchist community and experimented with radical theater before founding the Dill Pickle Club in 1914. Jones’s radical connections made the club a hang out for Wobblies like Big Bill Haywood, ex-Wobblies like William Z. Foster, and anarchists like Dr. Ben L. Reitman.

Reitman was equal parts showman, physician, and radical. He had been the proprietor of Chicago’s “Hobo College,” as well as the anarchist speaker Emma Goldman’s road manager and lover.  Joining forces with Jack Jones, Reitman booked a steady line-up of speakers from radical social movements and academia. In 1919, Chicago writer Sherwood Anderson called the club a place where “the street car conductor sits on a bench beside the college professor, the literary critic, the earnest young wife, who hungers for culture, and the hobo.”

By the mid-1920s, with the radical and the trade union movements in disarray, the Dill Pickle Club became a cultural business as much as a place of vital cultural interchange. It was during the prohibition years that the Club became a speakeasy, or illegal tavern, drawing crowds of college students for a taste of the bohemian wild life. Along with Bughouse Square it was listed as a must-see in travel guidebooks of the period.

In the early 1930s, Jones had a sudden run of trouble with the law. He refused to pay protection money to the mob, and as a result the police shut the Dill Pickle down. Jones tried to restart the club at several other locations, but the magic was gone. Travel guidebooks, including one produced by the city of Chicago continued to highlight bohemian clubs like the Dill Pickle. But Jones never got back in the business. He drifted into obscurity, worked as a painter, took public relief jobs, and died of a heart attack in 1940.