Studying the WCE for Almost 40 Years

Midway cover

Welcome to the World’s Columbian Expo Journal’s new blog site. For those who have read either of our books on the history of the fair, you probably know 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 as of the late 1970s, but had not yet written or produced any books.

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

Both of us were young and very enthusiastic visitors to our local world’s fair, the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. By the time the seventies rolled around, we were more than 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 the fact that it was in a mint condition original cardboard box from the fair.

THAT WAS THE KEY TO OPENING THE DOOR TO RESEARCH ABOUT THE WORLD’S COLUMBIAN EXPO where the medal had been sold as a souvenir. Over the next decade I had built a reputation in both writing and collecting circles as an expert on the WCE. It was then that the National Trust for Historic Preservation asked us to write and produce a history of the WCE to celebrate the fair’s 1993 centennial.

The book was published as a limited-edition (150 copies at $150) and simultaneously as 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 inset into the cover of the case. The book also included a limited lithograph  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. We 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. We will sell copies of these books along with an outstanding library of WCE books published in 1892-1894, and others we have written/published (Civil War, Klondike Gold Rush, etc.). As part of our ongoing Columbian research, and our sale of items from the fair, we began an internal inventory of materials, also.

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 specific building, 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 publish 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 TOPICS WE WILL WRITE ABOUT SHORTLY, having been worked on over the many months we spent finishing the Midway book and planning this blog, include:

  • Revenue generated by concessions both on the Midway and the complete fair grounds
  • Claims—and facts—of racism at the fair
  • Ticket 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

We plan to 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. We 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 sort fact from fiction.

Just looking at the thousands of notes and photos that did not make the cut in our two Columbian books, it’s pretty clear that we have an enormous wealth of material to share about the fair.

A great many of you probably have an interest in the WCE that is highly specialized. 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 such items in main grounds buildings; collectors interested specifically 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 field of interest. We’ll bring them all to you and look forward to your comments.

We endeavor to be very prompt in responding, whether it’s via email (norm@thehistorybank.com) or phone (425-481-8818). –Norm Bolotin, May 9, 2017

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