In photographs from the nineteen-teens and twenties, all the men wear blazers, ties and hats, so it can be difficult to tell which are the young gentlemen and which are the hoboes, but one group shot, labeled “Typical Young Hoboes,” makes it clear that the room of fresh-faced men in black garb are not the high society set. One hundred or so years ago Chicago was a major stopping point for hoboes (migrant workers), tramps (migrant non-working) and bums (both non-migratory and non-workers), filling nickel-a-night flophouses on Madison Street and congregating in speakeasies in the evening.
Today the term “hobo” may simply mean a beggar or homeless person, but back then hobohemia was a lifestyle, and Chicago embraced its tramps. Although they are not as romanticized as the beat poets of the fifties and sixties, the hoboes of the twenties and thirties (really, the beats’ protégés) formed a subculture—perhaps America’s first counter-culture—by actively engaging such outlaw topics as women’s rights, birth control, homosexuality, vegetarianism, labor laws, World War I protests and other socially aware topics. At venues such as the Dill Pickle Club a lecture would be followed by dancing, dinner, an art show and some theater. “Do you like to be Preached to? Do Statistics appeal to you?” reads one poster announcing a lecture by Dr. Ben Reitman, the Dill Pickle Club’s publicist, historian, frequent lecturer and physician. “Tuesday Nov. 6 the subject is VIOLENCE,” says the handbill, which also lists the most common methods of suicide (number seven is “run over by trains”). Such self-help seminars would not have been rare, especially for the free-thinking Dr. Reitman.
No subculture is complete without a unique visual vocabulary. Hobo chalk marks on trains—the precursor to graffiti—succinctly communicated to other hoboes the presence of barking dogs or safe places to sleep. The clubs, however, such as the Dill Pickle, printed posters and handbills for hoboes and other roving intellectuals, and many of these remain in the collection of the Newberry Library, not far from the original Dill Pickle site. Jack Jones, founder of the Dill Pickle, created many woodcuts for his posters, as did many now unknown artists, to announce dances, balls, discussions and dinners. Sometimes the imagery is crudely crafted and the text is a quirky jumble of misspelled, made-up and cryptic words (one reads, “Glands” followed by “‘nuff sed,” perhaps alluding to a forum on sexuality), and Jack Jones seems to have gotten most creative for his Halloween Balls. Other times, though, the handmade imagery perfectly coincides with the topics of do-it-yourself community welfare and anti-war dances.
Independent researcher Marc Moscato, from Portland, received a fellowship from the Newberry Library to study its holdings of Dill Pickle Club ephemera, resulting in an exhibition, a self-published book and a twelve-minute documentary film. The exhibition, “Brains, Brilliancy, Bohemia: Art & Politics in Jazz-Age Chicago” is on view at Mess Hall—itself a multi-purpose community free space that tips its hat to venues such as the Dill Pickle Club. The installation is more of a conceptual project than a fine art show, since no original posters are on view, only photocopies of the posters and books, some reproduced in larger sizes than their originals. Since the handbills, posters, invitations and ads are mostly about communicating ideas rather than inventing an aesthetic, the reproductions don’t get in the way of the message, and having a show of only copies allowed Moscato to include copies of relevant illustrations from books (themselves printed copies) from the era, including some of Herman Rosse’s fantastic drawings from “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” Ernie Bushmiller’s (who created the “Nancy” comic strip) cartoonish illustrations form a hobo handbook and Leon Ray Livingston’s, aka A No. 1 Tramp, illustrations from hobo pulp fiction novels. Combined, the photocopied works seem like a peek into Moscato’s research notebook.
Dr. Reitman, whose name appears in almost all of the posters, also wrote portraits of many hoboes he met, in the form of poetry. “Dick was a little blond artist. / Weighed 117, talked like a girl,” begins one, and goes on to detail how Dick’s homosexual lifestyle caused him to get beat up by the police. These poems are filled with evocative lingo from the day, but they’re also small pieces of humanism that chronicle social ills—illegitimate sexuality and police brutality in Dick’s case.
Moscato tells an anecdote about Bughouse Square, an outdoor club that gathered in Washington Park, across the street from the Newberry Library. Moscato says the hoboes would spend all day reading about issues that concerned them, then would gather in the park, literally stand on a soapbox, and tell their tale. Moscato laments, though, that today it’s difficult to learn from a stranger on the street. Someone on a soapbox is deemed crazy and ignored. A typical event at the Dill Pickle, or forty of the other cabarets then in existence, would pit atheist versus Buddhist versus minister, and audiences learned from the disagreements that ensued. Such handmade opportunities for self-education are becoming rarities, but Moscato’s hand-sewn catalog, his exhibition and his film are a look backward, and a step forward.
Published in Newcity (April 6, 2009)