Understanding Columbian Attendance & Admission tickets

15 Million “Day of Sale” Tickets Were Used, But Little is Known About Them

Most everyone familiar with the World’s Columbian Exposition is aware of the American Bank Note-produced set of six tickets: Columbus, Lincoln, Washington and an American Indian Chief, all four of which were general admission tickets. The other two were specialty tickets, Benjamin Franklin for complimentary entrance and Handel for music.

The four basic tickets were printed in a regular series and then an additional “A” series when more were needed. The first printings were for one million each, the “A” printing for 500,000 each. That is a total of 6 million and there were 21 million paid admissions to the fair.

Interesting to us is the fact that many students and collectors of the fair don’t realize that these were only ADVANCE sale tickets—to individuals planning a trip months ahead, to businesses interested in giving them out as promotions, to Chicagoans anxious both to support the fair and have their tickets for their planned many visits.

The tickets that remain as collectibles today were those never sold (we don’t know the quantity), many of which were sold in bulk to the Caxton Company and others who packed them as a set and sold them at discounted prices as souvenirs after the fair.

The tickets that were used were accepted from fairgoers by ticket takers and run through a cancellation and mutilating machine at the 326 entrance turnstiles. On a related note, the fair wasn’t just efficient with the number of actual admission gates/turnstiles, but also had 97 ticket booths with 182 total ticket sales windows; there were 172 separate exit gates on the grounds, as well.

But once tickets were used, they were gone. Any of these admission tickets we have today come from the excess at the end of the fair or from whatever small number were purchased prior to the fair and then never used.

The “Good Only on Day of Sale” tickets used at the World’s Columbian Exposition have been something of an enigma since….well, since the fair ended and people began collecting Columbiana. But these tickets were used for 15 million admissions or more than 70% of total paid fair admissions.

They definitely are much rarer than one would guess, as well; like the fancy tickets relinquished at the turnstiles, they were mutilated when handed to the ticket takers. This is indicative of what might be called a bit of paranoia on the part of fair management. There was a legitimate if not exaggerated concern over forgeries and ticket theft. Today technology makes it quite simple to scan a ticket and return it to the visitor as a souvenir and even in the 19th century, tickets could have been punched as they were on railroads and given back to those who wanted a keepsake.

Instead, WCE’s brain trust devised a plan to ensure that the tickets used each day would be random and different precluding anyone using the wrong ticket or somehow managing to reuse a ticket or a counterfeit the next day.

For decades, students of the WCE tickets believed that the number and letter combination of letters must have been in a pattern.

Someone 40 or 50 years ago came up with an idea for the pattern and it was at least tacitly accepted for years: The numeral on the ticket represented the month of the fair. Number 1 was May, the first month the fair was operating; Number 2 was June, and so on through October. One problem with this system was that for years there was no number/letter combination using the Number 4, and we all know that August was a pretty busy month at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

So what could this seemingly random use of letters and numbers on Day of Sale tickets mean? Why 1/L, 2/M, 3/H and even single letters such as L and S?

In 1980, the only reference catalog to Columbian ticket was published, with a remarkable list of tickets from concessions to admissions to season passes. It was black and white with no illustrations and modest detail on tickets known and speculated to have existed. [As an aside, we have mentioned that we are working on a comprehensive catalog of all tickets and passes from the WCE—perhaps 500 or more in all; it’s a monumental task but over the years we have collected several thousand images and notes, and when we sold our own collection in 1980 it contained approximately 300 different tickets, and 500+ in all.]

When that catalog was published 37 years ago it listed a rather remarkable and exhaustive number of Day of Sale tickets, 23 different number/letter combinations in all.

In 2008 when we sold the collection, we had identified—owned/sold—32 total number/letter combinations, nine in addition to those identified 28 years earlier.

In the nine years since, as you can see from the accompanying chart, we’ve now identified a total of 47 different number/letter combinations or more than doubled the total known to most collectors via that 1980 catalog.

In discussing the year’s of studying and searching for Day of Sale tickets, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge James Morgan, a Columbian collector, whom I met perhaps ten or so years ago. He has been tenacious in hunting for new number/letter combinations and is responsible for the identification of many of the additions made since 2008.

If one were to take these 47 number/letter combinations and attempt to discern a pattern it would be virtually impossible, and with good reason. We discovered some years ago the pattern and approach of the fair management: As a means of thwarting any thieves or counterfeiters, the tickets were ordered with purely random number/letter combinations. Monday might be “S” and Tuesday “2/M” and those combinations might be reused a month later.

Harlow Higinbotham actually revealed this information in a post-fair report that went unnoticed for a century or so. Obviously, number/letter combinations were reused an average of 3-4 times to fill out the full six-month calendar.

I’m afraid we will never know exactly how many of each ticket was used and for which dates and how many dates.

We cannot even ascertain “rarity” of use by the frequency of tickets showing up in the collector or archive/museum marketplace. If we see one ticket more than any others, it may have been used a commensurate amount with other tickets but was printed in a larger quantity, and/OR! simply released as extras after the fair when others existing in similar quantities may have been destroyed rather than finding their way to collectors.

For example, when the fair sold sets of tickets to the Caxton Company, they may well have grabbed a quantity of 1/S tickets (which today seem the most prevalent) to include with the package.

There simply are too many unknowns to determine rarities, how they were used and how they remain.

Certainly, one obvious observation about rarity would be that the tickets identified for the first time after 2008 are probably among the rarest. But when those initial tickets were identified in 1980, one or two may have been very scarce at the time—and remain so today.

Most seem to be among the more common, although those beginning with “6”—whether discovered in 1980 or recently—seem more scarce than the others known as of 1980.

We would guess that if this article and chart are widely read we may see a change in the collecting of these tickets: Today, most Day of Sale tickets in virtually new condition can be had for $15-$20 regardless of the number/letter combination.

That opens the door to a topic for another article: The asking price for WCE tickets, which is spread ridiculously across the board. Even on ebay one can see a ticket with all of the same attributes selling for $20 or $40 or $240. There is a segment of sellers who either have no comprehension of the history and rarity of tickets, or who believe that the marketplace will somehow succumb to ridiculously high prices because they think that they translate into value.

When we write more about the vast array of Columbian tickets we will address values, rarity and background on tickets. Our hope is that those from collectors to archivists will gain important knowledge from much of this history that has never been written before. Certainly sellers will benefit as well, but those offering Columbian tickets for exorbitant prices no doubt will have little desire to obtain such information.

This chart is quite basic and simple, but I can say that in 40 years of researching Columbiana it represents as much attention to details and unknown facts as almost any other aspect of studying the fair. I hope it proves useful to a great many folks interested in the fair.

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition–Day of Sale Tickets

All Letter/ Number Combinations Known Today

Those Known as of 1980 in Doolin Book

Known as of 2008 When Bolotin Collection Sold

Additional Identified From 2008-2017 

G

X

L

X

N

X

R

X

S

X

X

U

X

Y

X

X

X

1/D

X

X

1/E

X

1/F

X

X

1/G

X

X

1/H

X

X

1/J

X

1/K

X

1/L

X

X

1/N

X

X

1/O

X

X

1/P

X

X

1/R

X

X

1/S

X

X

1/T

X

1/Y

X

X

2/J

X

X

2/L

X

2/M

X

X

2/X

X

3/A

X

X

3/B

X

3/G

X

3/H

X

X

4/H

X

5/R

X

5/S

X

X

5/T

X

X

5/U

X

X

6/A

X

6/B

X

X

6/C

X

X

6/G

X

6/J

X

6/L

X

6/N

X

6/O

X

6/P

X

X

6/R

X

X

6/S

X

Total 47

Total in Doolin – 23

Total as of 2008 – 32 (9 in addition to Doolin)

 

Identified 2008-2017 – 15; total of 47 now known.

 

copyright 2017, Norman Bolotin, The History Bank

 

NOTE:
My apologies that the above chart is not particularly handsome. In reviewing it online and in the edit format it’s looked different. It was quite attractive as created but reverted to basic–or no–formatting when posted here. The gap between “2/J” and “2/L” is simply the end of the first page on the original document and has no significance in the chart. There is no known “2/K” in between! If that break causes the table widths to change, the “X” data is all in place and accurate regardless of how the blog software tries to change it! If anyone would like a PDF of the chart as it was originally created emailed just contact me after June 23 at norm@thehistorybank.com

As I post this I am off to Chicago for several talks to introduce our new book, The Grand Midway and to lead a walking tour of the Midway Plaisance. The times and dates are listed in a previous post.   I will be back in the office June 23 to catch up on emails and any questions regarding the Midway. For those who have ordered copies of the new book, I had hoped (albeit it was unlikely) books might be here before I left for Chicago. We’ll give you an update on when books will be here as soon we have the information.

 

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