Soapboxing on Madison Street, July 1922

Nels Anderson, DOCUMENT 60:  Notes on an Afternoon’s Series of Talks on the Soap Box on Madison Street

During a Sunday in July, 1922, no less than twenty men spoke on the box at the corner of Jefferson and Madison streets; and as many topics were treated.  In the afternoon the following speakers shared the time.

1.  The meeting was opened by a man who borrowed a box from a nearby fruit stand.  He tried to get another man to speak first, so that he would not have to hurt his voice gathering the crowd, but no one cared to start.   He talked for twenty minutes about graft in the patent medicine trade.  He had a very catchy speech, well tempered with humor, and he gathered a big crowd.  Evidently he had made a study of the patent medicine business, and his speech was an “exposure” of the game.  He finished by selling some pamphlets dealing with the subject.

2.  The second speaker was an I.W.W. who talked for fifteen minutes on education.  He was a good talker, and held the crowd.  He would up by selling some I.W.W. literature and periodicals, in which the thoughts of economists had been reduced from the difficult academic language to the understanding of the man on the street.  He also passed out some old literature, i.e., old issues of Solidarity, an I.W.W. paper.

3.  Another I.W.W. talked twenty minutes on organization.  He argued that the rich man organizes and for that reason is successful.  He does not want the poor men at the bottom to organize, because he fears that he will not be able to keep them at the bottom.  He did not blame the rich man for organizing; he blamed the poor man for not organizing.  He gave some literature away and sold some.

4.  A speech on superstition followed.  It lasted twenty minutes, and was aimed at a mission group that was holding a meeting across the street.  The argument was that the Bible and the Church were the most powerful instruments in the hands of rich men for keeping the poor man down.  No collection was taken.

5.  A twenty-minute speech on the economic organization of industry was given by a man who took great pains to remind the crowd that he had spent seven years to learn all about it.  He made a plea for the co-operation of labor to combat the organization of capital.  No collection was taken.

6.  The next man argued that the unemployment problem was caused by two things–the overcrowding of population, and the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few; 85% of the people had but 15% of the wealth and 15% of the people had 85% of the wealth, or more than they could possible consume.  This man usually takes up a collection, on the grounds that he is physically handicapped, but on this occasion he did not.  He spoke for twenty minutes.

7.  No more speakers wanted the box, so a drunk got on the stand and asked for the attention of the crowd.  He furnished amusement for fifteen minutes.  He was witty, but was easily led from subject to subject.

No speaker talked long enough to bore the crowd.  Each speaker, when he had finished, yielded the box to his successor.  The crowd was a characteristic hobohemian gathering, willing to stand as long as they could be interested by some talk that touched their interests.  Like most such gatherings, it kept diminishing and increasing in size.  Some would stand in front and listen for an hour, while others would stop for only a few minutes on the outer edge of the gathering.  The reaction to the speakers was for the most part sympathetic.  Occassionally, a man on the sidelines would be seen to frown disapproval, but the custom is for those who are not interested to worm their way out of the group and go their way.

Soap Box Ethics and Tactics

While the sixth speaker of the above list was talking, the crowd was attracted to the side by a discussion between one of the previous speakers and another man.  The argument attracted so many listeners that the speaker became irritated; he called to one of the men engaged in the discussion–“Say, B–, do you think that’s a square deal?”  Sorry, C–, I didn’t know that we were disturbing you.”  The crowd on the side dispersed and gathered around the speaker on the box.

Just as there are certain unwritten laws that are found in the [hobo] jungle camps, so there are unwritten laws that the soap-boxer observes.  Regardless of how much they differ in their schemes of reforming the world, they are seldom personal in their opposition to each other.  Soap-boxers behave toward each other when not on the box, much as lawyers do when they are out of the courtroom, and even while on the box they consider each others’ interests.  The six speakers who took part in the above program were far from being of one mind, but they co-operated admirably in holding the crowd for each other and in dividing up the time.  Any one of them could have talked longer, but each one closed with some such statement as this:  “I’d like to talk longer on this subject, but there are other speakers here, and they have something to say that you might like to hear.”


Nels Anderson, “Document 60: Notes on an Afternoon’s Series of Talks,” Ernest W. Burgess Papers–Other’s Work, Individual Students and Collaborators, Nels Anderson, Box 127, Folder 1.  Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago, Library.

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