I’ve been asked several times about the ‘rumor’ that the battleship anchored at the fair was not really a U.S. warship. The state-of-the-art war machine was in fact not the actual navy battleship, even though it was identical in length, beam, design, gun placements and every other aspect above the waterline. Visitors to the fair could tour the ship, stroll around above decks, look at the weaponry and the various accoutrements and talk to navy crew on board.

So what was not real about the ship? Everything. It wasn’t a ship at all. It was a wood and concrete model made to the exact superficial specifications of the real battleship. Above decks it looked identical, but if one could see below decks and below the waterline, it was quite a different story. The ‘ship’ was built on pilings sunk into the lake bottom and everything below decks was very solid structural construction of heavy wood beams and concrete to support the superstructure and the constant flow of visitors touring the ship.

Considering so much of the fair was state of the art it only makes sense that this model was so well built that millions of visitors had no idea they were looking at or walking on the deck of a solid structure rather than a floating one.

Why the U.S. Navy did not anchor a war ship at the fairgrounds for visitors to tour is odd, especially since the world’s navies were a big part of the fair and the massive naval celebration in New York, as well.

Rare Columbian Tickets & the Complexities of Valuing Them

Below is what we believe to be a unique ticket, but how does this play into the list of the most rare tickets from the World’s Columbian Exposition. There are many railroad, custom travel and similar tickets.

441-WCE maine gov RR Tix.gif

This one is great. It sold for perhaps $150 many years ago, but what’s it “worth?” I certainly had many similar tickets in my collection that I sold in 2008 and while they were in demand, the price was nowhere near what others were.

I thought it would be a nice idea to write an article about the rarest Columbian tickets as I work on the earliest stages of a new book cataloging the tickets and passes of the fair. I’m overwhelmed with the text I could or should be writing.

The book needs to catalog ALL of the tickets possible to identify, but what about the historial background of each, the values and the anectdotal information about them? The deeper I get into this project the more I see the possibillities of a ridiculously massive volume. That’s neither what the market wants or that would be financially feasible to produce.

But in planning a list of the top/rare ten or twenty tickets brings two difficult questions to mind: How can one establish a “value” in dollars when the collecting community, the market and the selling prices vary so dramatically? And how do we address “demand,” which is more volatile than in virtually any collectible field I’ve ever run across.

First, prices and “value” change greatly even if the known rarity does not. We have seen in many cases where a ticket where perhaps 3 to 5 are known to exist sells for say $500 in the year 2000. In 2010 it might bring $1,000 and in 2015 $350. One might question the logic or accuracy of such statements, but unfortunately, they’re quite accurate.

Having purchased tickets for my own collection as early as 1980 I have seen this type of change both up and down in selling price repeatedly. Unlike stamps or coins which have a long history of catalogs and price guides–as well as tens of thousands of collectors in each hobby–any world’s fair and especially the Columbian, lacks all the elements that could provide continuity to pricing.

When I first entered the field, there were a half dozen well-known and well-versed collectors of Columbiana. Tickets seldom changed hands for several hundred dollars. One exception, a total anomaly in this entire subject, has been the Ferris Wheel. It’s always been expensive, even decades ago. Why? Because of the mystique surrounding it. There are easily a few DOZEN examples of Ferris Wheel tickets in collectors’ hands.

Still you would be very hard pressed to buy one for less than $1,000. Some years ago I saw a tattered mess of a Ferris Wheel ticket sell for exactly that much. But with a little luck you could still find one out there in perfect condition for the same amount.

How does this make sense? In any collectible or economic field we all know that the bottom line is “supply and demand.” If there are 1,000 of a ticket and there is still demand for 1,000 or more, the price stays up. If there are five known tickets and 50 people who want one, the price goes up. And so on….sort of.

In the Columbian ticket market, as I have studied it for 35+ years, the rules don’t seem to apply. Is there really much greater demand for a Ferris Wheel ticket than there are tickets to be purchased? To some extent there must be because no matter when one becomes available, there is always someone around willing to pay the asking price of $1,000 or even $2,000. Yet if we can verify that 35-50 such tickets exist, what about the many Columbian examples with just one or maybe two or three known? How can they bring substantially less than a Ferris Wheel ticket?

My conclusion to this is based only on my own experience buying and selling. I firmly believe that the upper tier of collectors willing to purchase ultra rare tickets is tiny. Whether looking at the 1980s or the 2000s there have always been a very small handful of highly knowledgeable and very aggressive ticket buyers/collectors.

Today, due to ebay, we have a base of several times more Columbian collectors than ever before. But we till have that small handful who understand the rarities and their history AND are willing to pay top dollars for what they know to be the ultra rare tickets.

So how does this play out in today’s marketplace, certainly of major concern to me as a buyer and a seller and a researcher and writer.

If the top twenty Columbian tickets of all-time were to show up every so often on ebay what would they fetch? My assumption is that many would bring LESS than they did over the last couple of decades, while the other half might well exceed the historical highs.


Back to the collectors. Without 10, 20 or 50 years of personal Columbian collecting history, how can a serious but relatively new collector be expected to know about the unique ticket from the past….that is now being resold or perhaps a second specimen has been unearthed.

It is almost impossible to discuss this in hard terms without citing specific tickets and their specific “values” or rather, their selling price some time in the past.

All this has led me to a better understanding of what a catalog of tickets should contain.

I cannot list a Ferris Wheel Ticket or a music ticket or a police pass and assign a value. The value twenty years ago might have been $1,500 for a given ticket and tomorrow on ebay it might bring $600. So what is the value? By using comparitive rarities and historical importance I might be inclined to assign a value to one of $800, another of $1800. But I believe that is the wrong approach. What I intend to do is discuss the rarity, important and  previous selling price. Then, with a logical market price of $1,500-$2,000 we still may see it sell for half as much or twice as much. The one factor no one can determine or establish is WHO is available to bid when an item comes to auction and how those bidders personally value a rare ticket.

With, compared to myriad other fields, how few Columbian collectors exist and how very few exist with the financial ability to spend several thousand dollars on a ticket, “value” is almost a meaningless term. I recall vividly in the earliest years of ebay when I was one of a half dozen so-called upper tier ticket collectors. A wonderful small collection of Columbian tickets came on ebay. I knew for a fact that three of the other five collectors who should have been strong bidders were on vacation. I don’t recall the status of the other two, but I do recall quite vividly that I was able to win the group of tickets for about one third of my anticipated price–just because the others weren’t there to bid.

I suspect that today a similar situation might arise and then, attempting to use the selling price as a legitimate “value” would be dramatically misleading. All this is going to be factored into the catalog I produce. The closest I intend to come to valuing any pieces can be found in the language I’ve used below in listing rare tickets.

As I noted, I wanted to share a list of some of the rarest tickets. I do so with the caveat that I am not placing them in any order or rank, nor am I assigning a present value. And there are plenty more rarities that belong in the list of “rarest Columbian tickets.” The final list might contain 25 or 35 total tickets. Here’s a start.

  • The only known PROOF of the Ferris Wheel ticket, in all black ink, front only on was on slick proof paper. I sold this about ten years or more ago for $1,800. Today I would think it should bring close to twice that amount. I’m not including the basic Ferris Wheel ticket in this list because while it always brings a high price, and it certainly could be categorized as “rare,” those listed here are unique or examples of tickets where far fewer than the Ferris Wheel tickets are known.
  • Camera Obscura was planned as an exhibit on the Midway but never came to fruition. It may have had visitors at the earliest stages of Midway construction but was not completed nor opened. This ticket brought the highest price known for a Columbian ticket at Heritage Auction’s sale of my personal ticket collection in 2008 at $3,100. I purchased it, with a pair of family photos, on ebay where the ticket was only partially shown. I am sure that most collectors did not give a second thought to the partially hidden ticket and saw the lot as two photos of a couple, one taken at the World’s Columbian Exposition. I was intrigued and won the lot for $35 and it took several years before I was able to place the ticket in its context and to understand its rarity. What would it sell for today? My gut says maybe only half what it sold for in 2008–unless more than one collector were to be aggressive in trying to buy it.
  • A very strange pass from the Austro-Hungarian Gazette is the only known ticket or pass to the fair from this very obscure publication. The pass was very oddly designed and looked almost as if it were a joke. Still, it did bring nearly $800 a decade ago. While it is clearly unique, it is also highly unusual and might not excite buyers.
  • This is the only example known of a “token ticket” for Stand 20 that identified the concession. It was for soft drinks and looked much like a 1960s esoteric design squeezed into the standard “stand” size ticket. It sold for approximately $1,500 in about 2005-6. I was an underbidder at the time. Again, it doesn’t fit the formula for many tickets, but certainly should be “worth” more than its previous selling price.
  • A complimentary pass (not ticket) for the Intramural Railway sold for $999 about the same time and it was assumed to be unique and probably is. Because the railway is such an integral and popular element of the fair, I would assume that you would not be able to touch this one for anywhere near its original selling price.
  • While not a single ticket, a group of Intramural tickets–a very rare commissioner’s ticket, an equally rare complimentary ticket and a standard ticket–sold together for $1,912 in roughly the same period as the above RR pass. Obviously, 90% of the price was wrapped up in the commissioner’s and comp tickets.
  • The Oriental Odeon was a theater on the Midway and I know of two tickets that exist, one that I sold in my collection in 2008 for more than $2,200 and one that was owned by the late John Kennel. John was a terrific resource for collectors, a collector much longer than I and a great human being, not just a collector’s friend. I do not know if his family kept his collection intact or if/when it will be sold. In a case such as this, whether there is one or two known is irrelevant–it might as well be unique.
  • I know of only one complimentary pass to the Kilauea Volcano on the Midway and a good friend sold it in 2007 for $2,008. This would have to be one of the most desirable tickets from the Midway.
  • A recent ticket/card for filling out hours for the Rolling Chair Company recently sold on ebay for I believe around $1,000; the one in my collection sold in 2008 for a bit over $1,300. While 3-to-5 may be known, this is a great piece and one that can be researched easily (Aha…in my new history of the Midway, of course) and with so few known, I think there should be no reduction in price today. I believe that the $1,000 sale on ebay was a bargain for the buyer.
  • While the Buffalo Bill Wild West show was clearly not part of the fair (I discussed this in “The Grand Midway” as well) it is lumped in with it by many and for many reasons. Medals (very, very rare) issued have the fair on one side and Buffalo Bill on the other, for example. The only admission ticket I’ve heard of for the Wild West show concurrent with the fair sold for $865 about ten years ago. Again, I’d consider this greatly underpriced.
  • The Arctic Whaling Bark (ship) on display at the fair was one of dozens of free-standing exhibits that were relegated to an “other” class with so many things to see and write about at the time. I sold the only ticket I’d ever seen in my 2008 sale for nearly $900. I would guess that John Kennel had one in his collection and that perhaps another is floating around in another longtime collection. I think that the relative obscurity of the exhibit might keep a ceiling on the selling price, although based strictly on rarity it should sell for much more than it did in 2008.
  • A unique ticket I found nearly twenty years ago and sold in 2008 was a ticket to a Grand Ball for fair employees held on the Midway after the close of the fair. I was elated when I found it and I’ve never heard of another. It sold for just under $1,150. This seems to me to be near the top of any ticket list, in rarity and price.
  • An interesting and NOT unique ticket which still shows up occasionally (I’d guess fewer than 10 are known) is the Vertical Transit elevator ticket. Along with the Hale elevator tickets they are always in demand, quite rare and especially interesting in that elevators were so new in 1893 that they required the purchase of a ticket to ride them. I purchased a lot of 5 or 6 and sold them for up to $795 each in about 2005; at the time I knew of one collector who had another from the same “find.” I would guess that a couple of others might be out there in the hands of collectors. They are certainly scarce enough that today a price of nearly $1,000 each seems quite reasonable.
  • One piece that maybe should or shouldn’t be here–with tokens perhaps instead–is a ten cent good-for chit from the French Cider Press on the Midway. It is about the size of a business card and made of some type of glass or porcelain which is cracked–and it is unique. I don’t have the record of the amount at hand, but I sold it privately to a collector for about $2,000. I would think that this piece, since it would appeal to ticket or token collectors, easily could/should bring more than $2,000 today.

I think it best to stop this list (we may well do another as our work on the book progresses) but hopefully this provides some general insight into the rarer tickets and the ticket marketplace. It would be quite easy to add another dozen to this list of rarities, regardless of their past selling prices. And mentioning the French Cider Press piece also brings to mind the many unique tokens from the fair, which we will discuss another time.

I’m very anxious for your feedback and for input on other rarities with which you are familiar. I’m constantly amazed at how many tickets and stories about them are out there yet to be discovered.





Chicago’s Grand Midway Enroute

For those who have ordered copies of our new book, my sincere apologies for the slow arrival. The official publication date was July 1 and advance copies were available in Chicago at the three venues where I spoke. I also signed extra books beyond those that were sold after my presentations.

If you’re in the Chicago area, I urge you to purchase direct from the Book Stall in Winnetka or the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park on the University of Illinois campus.

You can also order direct from the University of Illinois Press at

I’m told that books I’ve ordered for resale as well as my “author” copies are enroute but they should have been here by now. I’m hopeful a few more days will result in a delivery of a couple cartons of books. Thanks very much for your patience.

If you have any questions about the new books, our original history of the fair still in print after 24 years or articles written here, please let me know at–or just click the “Contact” button on the home page.

Original WCE Fixtures on Ebay

On any given day there are 2,000+ items on ebay from the World’s Columbian Expo–books, cards, tickets, medals, jewelry, paperweights and so on. On rare occasions we see a major piece of furniture or structure. In June, I spotted two such items, but if you’re interested, better check your PayPal balance. The photo here is an electric street lamp from the fair and was offered for $18,000. When I went back to check on it, the listing was gone. I suppose someone with deep pockets and a large exhibit space may have purchased it; or more likely, there were no buyers and the listing expired.


CEYLONG $26K 8 X11FT.jpg

As if the lampost wasn’t rare enough to cause folks to take a second look, these amazing carved pillars were also listed in June. The lot consisted of eight 11-foot tall carved pillars for a total ebay asking price of $26,000. If someone just happened to be in the market for some architectural structural components for a house or store, what a great–and expensive–addition to a modern structure.

We can’t attest to the provenance but I believe one could certainly compare the carved pillars to photos of the Ceylon Building. And at just a glance, the lamp post being offered looks exactly like the ones on the street in the center of the Midway in our new book.

Since my budget and space are a tad more limited than these items would require, I’m sticking to my folding chair from Old Vienna’s courtyard restaurant as my piece of vintage WCE furniture in my office; it fits a tad better than a light pole or an eleven-foot carved wooden support.

It should go without saying that not every “genuine” item from the World’s Columbian Expo is, in fact, from our favorite fair. We have seen a variety of signs and large items with absolutely no provenance and no corroborating evidence in photos offered on ebay and elsewhere. Souvenirs aside, one of the toughest tasks in verifying authenticity is with non-souvenir items sold or allegedly sold on the Midway or the main grounds–oriental rugs, silks, carvings, etc. They may well be a Samoan or Turkish item made in 1893 at the fair….or they may be a genuine item made in 1891 or 1895…or they just may not be genuine at all. Too often the only provenance is a verbal or hand-written note from somone’s great grandmother. If that’s enough to satisfy you to acquire a vintage piece for your home, great: But you’ll never recoup your investment when it comes time to sell unless you have some solid provenance. And you don’t want to leave it to your kids or grandkids with nothing but a story about its origin.

Thanks To All Involved in Chicago Trip

Thanks to everyone who made the launch of Chicago’s Grand Midway in Chicago June 17-22 a great success. That begins with the University of Illinois Press staff setting up the events. I can’t say enough about the individuals at the various venues, and I apologize I don’t have all the names to thank publicly. The book Stall coordinated my talk and book signing at the venerable downtown University Club and the staff of the club were all a big help.

The Book Stall in Winnetka set up the program at the store with an interview format rather than just me talking for an hour on my own and it went very well.

The Seminary Co-Op Bookstore on the University of Chicago campus did a terrific job, recording my hour+ long talk for their series of podcasts and also recording a brief recommendation of another author’s book; I spent a few minutes discussing a new book, also from the University of Illinois Press, by a friend and colleague, Douglas Wilson. Doug is one of the country’s foremost authorities on Abraham Lincoln and has a new book examining Lincoln through the correspondence of his longtime law partner in illinois, William Herndon.

After the talk at the Seminary Co-op we walked the short distance to the Midway where I led the group along the north side adjacent to the University of Chicago and discussed the various villages and concessions, where they were situated, their size and a bit about them. We were planning on an hour or so, but the walking and talking tour went so well that we didn’t stop until dusk overtook us. We spent two hours and still covered only about one fourth of the Midway and its villages of 1893.

Thanks very much to all the folks who took time to attend the presentations and to ask many insightful questions. I think that all told we had about 85 attendees at the three venues, and it was a great pleasure to speak to many and hear about their interests in the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Poster for June 21 Talk in Chicago

This a poster used by the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore to promote my talk and walking tour of the Midway this coming week. It was created for the store by artist Zack Bolotin, who creates posters for a wide variety of music and other venues in the Northwest….and happens to be the author’s son!

Seminary Co-Op, despite a name that might confuse, is a long-standing Hyde Park fixture and one of the largest and best independent bookstores in the country.

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 






















































































































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


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

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.


Rolling Around the Columbian Expo

A reader asked us if we could provide some insight into the Columbian Rolling Chair Co, and indeed we can. The venture was HUGE by 1893 standards. The company running the operation grosssed nearly $400,000 during the six months of the fair. As a comparison, the Ferris Wheel generated a bit over $700,000 (of course it didn’t open when the fair did, so that wonder of the Expo generated nearly 3/4 of a million dollars in just four months).

Still, one would expect to see big dollars from the centerpiece of the Midway, but from a fleet of wheel chairs? Also, it’s good to look at fair concessions in present-day dollars to focus more clearly on how we seem them in the perspective of our own world. 1893 dollars generally are multiplied by 20- to 25-times to present a picture in “today’s dollars.” Naturally, the cost of living, world’s fair expenditures and what fairgoers had in their collective pockets in 1893 is more complex than this formula. Still, use 25x and the Ferris Wheel’s 50-cent admission cost would be $12.50 today; I’m not sure about other cities, but a ride on Seattle’s waterfront Big Wheel can’t be had for “only” $12.50. Admission to the WCE, likewise 50 cents, would also become $12.50 and you surely won’t attend any major event for that in 2017. The most expensive attraction at the fair was the $2.00 fee for a ride aloft in the captive balloon or $50 in 2017 dollars. Here in Woodinville, WA, we have some spectacular options for hot air balloon rides–and a lovely morning flight will set you back almost $200.

So if you’re looking at prices at the fair versus today, while it’s difficult to compare to our costs in the 21st century, remember that in 1893 disposable income was the purview of the wealthy and spending a dime or quarter for an attraction on the Midway or paying $1-$2 for a room per night in Chicago was absolutely NOT small change.

That’s a long preamble to the rolling chair story because the Columbia Rolling Chair Company generated a million dollars in revenue in today’s dollars and the rolling chairs were pricey, to say the least.

The company employed hundreds of college students as attendants who were happy to get work for the summer. I suspect that college students were selected because the company assumed they were generally more responsible than just unemployed laborers. Still, there were the occasional complaints that attendants thought racing one another with their guests in the wheel chairs was great fun, as were rides said to be too fast and too bumpy; but the complaints were minimal over the course of the fair.

The attendants wore snappy-looking uniforms, not unlike a train porter or even the Columbian Guard, the police force of the fair.

The wheeled vehicles were much like a medical wheel chair at the time, cane seats and high backs, designed only for someone to “push” as opposed to riders manipulating the wheels for themselves.

The rolling chairs were available throughout the 600+ acres of the main grounds that stretched from the stock pavilions at the south, through the various lagoons to the Fine Art Pavilion at the top of the waterways and beyond to state and foreign buildings farther north. East and west, it was from Lake Michigan, through the major buildings, around the lagoons and to the Horticulture and Woman’s buildings at the west….and on to the mile-long Midway.

Above, on the Midway, two attendants carry an empty sedan chair–a heavy load even without a passenger; at the far right a uniformed rolling chair attendant pushes a customer.

Attendants with their chairs were situated everywhere and anywhere. Someone tired could buy an hour or two, being pushed, or for less money having a spouse or child do the work. The cost was 60 cents for an hour with an attendant–$6.00 for a full 10-hour day on the grounds.

We have no way of determining what percentage of rolling chair users employed an attendant, and if so, we’d guess there was a tip added on at the end of the shift or day. But it seems to have been very common for fairgoers to have rented the chairs sans attendant. In our new book, The Grand Midway, we used excerpts from multiple diaries and letters and one diarist, who visited the fair some FIFTY times in its six-month run, commented once that her parents and many friends got together for the evening on the grounds “and we got a chair for mother and took turns pushing.”

Above, two young rolling chair attendants pose in the studio, sporting freshly pressed uniforms.

As a footnote to the rolling chairs, there were other options available for the weary visitor–a sedan chair carried by Turkish attendants, a small “cab” like a phone booth atop two long poles carried front and back by the attendants. Those were generally quite short rides, due to the heavy labor–from one location to another on the Midway, or just around an area of the Midway for fun rather than getting anywhere.

And in a similar vein, camp chairs were rented for guests who wanted the option of being able to stop on a whim and sit a while, without worrying about finding an open chair or bench. We’ve never unearthed details of the camp chairs, which we assume were canvas-seated folding, lightweight contraptions. We did once locate a ticket “good for twenty five cents if returned accompanied with chair in good condition to any camp chair booth this day.”

Chicago Talks Scheduled for June 19-21


For those in Chicago or visiting the Windy City in mid-June, we have finalized some of our speaking engagements and autographings to promote our new World’s Columbian Exposition Book. (See the cover with our preceding post.)

I will be at the University Club in the Loop (corner of Monroe and Michigan) for a luncheon talk at noon on Monday, June 19.

I will be at the Book Stall in Winnetka (811 Elm Street) north of the city for a 6:30 PM talk on Tuesday, June 20.

On Wednesday, June 21, I will be at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park from 6-7:30 PM. 

I will be making a presentation as well as leading a walking tour of the Midway. It will be a great opportunity to walk the mile-long Midway and discuss which concessions occupied which spaces. It’s a bit overwhelming to look at the Midway today with its east-west roadway on each side and envision the expansive sites such as Cairo Street, Old Vienna, the Java Village, the German Village and dozens others that formed a thriving community at the west end of the main fairgrounds.

The Midway as it was structured with villages in 1893 was a mile long (as it is today between Washington and Jackson parks) and 600 feet wide. The Midway Plaisance as it existed during the 1893 fair stretched left and right (north and south) across the grassy boulevard as well as the streets of today.

Most, but not all, of the north-south streets intersecting the Midway remain today, which gives us an excellent set of reference points for the placement of each concession.

If you have questions about my presentations in Chicago, please don’t hesitate to phone or email me in the next weeks leading up to the trip.

Studying The WCE For Nearly 40 Years

Welcome to the World’s Columbian Expo Journal. For those who have read either of our books on the history of the fair, you probably read about what sparked our interest in the 1893 fair.

We—partners in The History Bank, Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing—were working together as editors and had written a variety of material, but as of the late 1970s had not yet written any books.

FYI: Throughout this blog, when you see the first person “I” it will be Norm writing. Otherwise “we” is from collectively The History Bank.

Both of us were young and very enthusiastic visitors at our local world’s fair, the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. By the time the seventies rolled around, we were beyond ankle-deep in studying and collecting material about all world’s fairs, including the World’s Columbian Expo. But it was at a Seattle coin show in 1979 that Norm discovered an amazing high-relief medal in the original box from 1893. Without much knowledge about such items from Chicago, I purchased it because of its amazing beauty and condition, as well as being found in a virtually new original box from the fair.

That was the key to opening the door to research about the fair where this medal had been sold as a souvenir. A decade or so later, I had built a reputation in both writing and collecting circles as an expert on the WCE when we the National Trust for Historic Preservation asked us to write and produce a history of the WCE for the fair’s 1993 centennial.

The book was produced in a limited-edition (150 copies at $150) and a hardcover edition. The limited-edition sold out immediately to readers of the Trust’s magazine. It was leather-bound and came in a slipcase with an 1893 U.S. Columbian half dollar in an inset. The book also included a limited print from the fair, numbered to coincide with the number of the book.

In 2002 the University of Illinois Press reissued the book in softcover, which is still in print and available from the press, bookstores, Amazon—and The History Bank.

Our second book about the fair was nearly twenty years in the making. I researched the fair intensely between the publication of the first book in 1993 and the 2017 publication of The Grand Midway which coincided with the launch of this new site in June 2017.

We are also establishing The History Bank as an online bookstore at the same time. We will sell copies of these books along with an outstanding library of WCE books published in 1892-1894. As part of our ongoing Columbian research, and our sale of items from the fair, we began an internal inventory of materials as we were preparing the launch of this blog.

It was a little shocking to discover we had some 9,000 digital photos from the fair in our files; that is not to say we have 9,000 separate subjects represented, as we might have 2,3 or a half dozen photos of a Columbian medal or a trade card, for instance.

We also have an extensive library of magazines and other periodicals published in 1892-1893, as well as guides and hardcover histories and references from the fair.

We have not announced a long list of specific articles that will appear here, as we intend to develop topics as questions and comments appear. We also will have small snippets of information and photos which we hope will be of strong interest to blog followers. You’ll find those dropped in as we refine and formulate ways to share information on this new site. Just a few of the article ideas we have been developing include the following topics:

  • Revenue generated by concessions both on the Midway and the main fair grounds
  • Claims of racism at the fair
  • Tickets from the fair and plans for a new catalog/complete guide to tickets at the fair including those peripherally related to the fair (travel packages, steamships, railroads)
  • Inaccuracy rampant in reporting during the fair and publishing immediately after
  • Collectibles’ rarity, value and background (The WCE was more prolific in producing souvenirs, medals and other items than perhaps any fair before or since)
  • The overwhelming preponderance of “Landing Scene” souvenirs
  • Fair attendance, Chicago and U.S. populations and analysis of visitorship
  • Admission tickets, both ornate presale examples and the enigmatic “Day of Sale” tickets
  • Relics (not souvenirs) from the fair
  • Latecomers (and no shows) among exhibitors at the fair

We will provide both lengthy essays and single-paragraph stories about the WCE. We are anxious to have both feedback and questions, as well as information you may have to share with our readers. I continually find new information and long-sought-after verification of “facts” even after almost four decades of studying the WCE. We will talk about the myriad quasi-facts that are continuously quoted, both online and in print, and how gratifying it is finally after so many years to be able to discover even the most obscure but verifiable facts.

I am sure that a great many of those with an interest in the WCE have very specialized topics they study. We have encountered specialists in disparate segments of the fair and we will do our best to report on these as well as broader topics. Please do let us know the areas of your interest, regardless of how narrow that interest may be. For example, we know of scholars studying ethnology, sociology and anthropology at the fair relative to villages on the Midway as well as the collection and display of items in main grounds buildings; collectors interested  in just the first known appearance of souvenir elongated coins at the WCE; and examples of technology introduced by the likes of Edison and Tesla, among many others.

Studying the fair can provide the tiniest bit of information that may reshape one’s perception of a major topic or the narrowest of topics. We’ll bring them all to you and look forward to your comments.

We’re try to respond very promptly to question and comments, whether they are on the blog or via email ( or phone (425-481-8818).