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).