#887: Harley and the Pickles

February 9th, 2018

Last night, I received a comment on my portfolio site from a student named Harley.

Harley was reading about 1920s bohemian hot spot The Dil Pickle Club for the Chicago Metro History Fair, a project of the Chicago History Museum that turns students in grades six to 12 into historians by making them research and present on Chicago and Illinois history. She or he (Harley like a 1990s villainess or like an 1890s vice admiral?) had come across a blog post of mine about the club and wanted to know where one could find out more about the Pickles.

First, Harley, I’m impressed. I never would have reached out to anyone for a project at that age. That level of initiative will carry you far in life.

Second, it’ll carry you a lot farther if next time you remember to leave some contact information.

So rather than try to track down a lone schoolkid somewhere in northeast Illinois, here’s a story directed at one person, but on a snowlocked morning meant for all. Here’s a quick and dirty guide for finding out what you want to know about Chicago history, including about one of the weirdest, wildest clubs the city ever knew.


I am not a historian in any capacity, just a journalist who really, really likes history and has a surprising amount of free time. If you find conflicting advice on research methods from more reputable sources, good lord do that instead.

Chicago Public Library

It’s quick and easy, Harley, and number one with a bullet. Books, my friend, books.

Or actually book. This seems to be the only one that pops up specifically on the Dill Pickle Club, but once you start finding the names of habitues, look up books by or about them. Once you find dates of big Pickle-y events, you can start fishing through the microfilm at the Harold Washington Library to see what the newspapers of the time said. Just have someone at the microfilm room desk show you how to load the film first.

The library’s digital collection is quite good too, with odds and ends about the club starting with its “quiet” christening. You don’t have to leave your room for that one (but leave the room anyway. No one likes a lazy researcher and a skill set limited to “I googled this” is only going to get you so far.)

Other places for books

Most local independent bookshops have a “Chicago” or “Local” section. Chain bookstores do too, but if I’m giving you this free advice I’m going to indoctrinate you into my cult of shopping local. They need your money more than Amazon does. If you need to order online, use Powell’s.

If you can find a copy, I recommend “The Rise & Fall of the Dill Pickle Club” by Franklin Rosemont. I don’t know if you want to spend money on this, but it’s a fun read compiling old articles and interviews about the club.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for at a library or bookstore, give Google Books a search. They might have digitized it, they might not have, they might have digitized it and not released it, but it’s worth a shot. Project GutenbergHathitrust and Archive.org are other good places to look for digital copies of books.

Chicago Collections Consortium

You want photos? They got photos.

And a handy guide to basic research concepts. Fun! Or at least probably going to look good on your history fair report!

The Newberry

Here you go, Harley, the big one. It’s one thing to read the people who read the things that the people who were there wrote, but how about you flip through old posters, read old invoices and programs for the events, handle Jack Jones’ own drawings of the Du-Dil-Duk that brings good luck.

(That last part of the sentence will probably make more sense after you get a bit into the research. Du-Dil-Duk. It’s delightful.)

The stately old Newberry library the throw of a stone away from the now-alley where the Pickles once raged has a massive collection of source documents and artifacts related to the club, both from the club itself and in the papers of the various writers and artists who frequented the place. Wonderful resource.

You didn’t mention your age in your comment on my portfolio site, but if you’re in high school or older than 14, it’s easy to obtain a reader’s card. If you’re younger than that, the Newberry still loves you, but they won’t let you thumb through the paperwork. Younger researchers can use the library’s email and phone services, plus talk to any of their librarians to see if there are other options.

In sum

So that’s it, Harley. That’s what I’ve got on how to find stuff out. None of this will make you a research historian — I’m not one so how could I teach you to be? — but there’s something quite lovely about not having to limit yourself.

Right now you, I and all the people reading this are limited by what we’re given. We’re presented a few articles, a dictionary definition, a blog post focusing on factoids without context, a textbook that strips out the stuff the school board thought will make you unmanageable — we’re presented a sanitized version of history that takes away all the uncomfortable, inconvenient and weird.

Isn’t it nice to be able to peek beyond that? Whatever happens with history fairs or classes or Dill Pickles and associated Du-Dil-Duks, isn’t it nice to have a few tricks that maybe possibly could help you suss out what really was?

I find it pleasant at least. And, Harley, when you win this history fair thing, I get half the trophy.

Read about my favorite high school teacher

How I spent my HS reunion

My historical Holy Grail

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You are currently reading #887: Harley and the Pickles by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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