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A certificate or token of right of admission to a place of assembly, or to enter and be carried in a public conveyance; as, a railroad or steamboat ticket. — Webster, 1882

The Winona & St. Peter Company will sell tickets, for the Fourth, to any point and return for one and one-fifth the local rates one way. The sale at reduced rates will commence on the 3rd and for all trains on the 4th and the return tickets will be good until the 7th. – The Redwood Gazette, July 3, 1879.

You wouldn’t think that something as simple as Laura’s Walnut-Grove-to-Tracy railroad ticket could raise so many questions, but it does. Was there an actual ticket, or did Ma simply pay for the right to travel? If there was a physical ticket, what color was it? How big was it? How much did it cost? Did it say “Winona & St. Peter Railway” on it or “Chicago & Northwestern Railway”? Did it show the date or mileage to be traveled? Was it perforated, and did Laura keep her ticket stub? So many questions, and unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to any of them! I’ve seen vintage railroad tickets, but not one that checks all the boxes as to carrier, date, and distance. Can you help? Email if you can.

In her Pioneer Girl memoir and the surviving manuscripts for By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder doesn’t give much information about the train tickets, only that Pa had send money for them, suggesting that they cost more cash than Ma kept on hand. There is no mention of how they were purchased, or who bought them. Once they are seated on the train, Ma simply gives three tickets to the conductor when he comes by for them. Carrie (age 9) and Grace (age 2) are young enough to travel for free, but Laura (age 12) must have a ticket. Was age 10 the cutoff? 12?

Conductor’s Ticket Punch. Laura calls the ticket punch a “small machine” held in the conductor’s hand. (The only other machine mentioned in By the Shores of Silver Lake is a threshing machine.) When the book was first published in 1939, rail travel and railway tickets would have been common to Wilder, Lane, and most Little House readers, but as it was a new experience for Laura, there had to be a few details showcasing the novelty of it all in contrast to, for example, riding in the covered wagon. Both modes of transportation are often foreign to today’s reader.

In the published version, after Ma buys the tickets at the ticket window at the depot, she puts them in her purse for safe-keeping. The conductor punches “little round holes” in them when she presents the tickets to him. What did he punch through: the date, some indication of departure and destination stations, or what? Did Rose Wilder Lane add this bit or were the tickets really punched? The book says the punch made round holes, but there were many different shapes available for a conductor’s punch, including stars, moons, diamonds, letters, and crosses; a particular conductor could be identified based on the punch he used. The drawing is from a patent issued the year Laura Ingalls Wilder was born, showing an “improved” ticket punch. It’s similar in design to craft punches sold today. Click HERE to read an article about safety measures applied to railroad tickets.

Depot Ticket Window. The opening in a wall through which the payment for railroad travel was made between the passenger and ticket agent. Because of the value of tickets and cash on hand by the agent (hence, the possibility of theft), there was typically a physical barrier between the buyer and seller in the form of a glass window with only a small opening at the bottom, metal bars, or both. Depots which had separate waiting rooms for men and women had multiple ticket windows. A small shelf was usually attached slightly below the opening on the purchaser’s side, on which the customer could place their gloves, purse, or wallet while conducting business. The next time you visit the Depot Museum in De Smet (the depot constructed in 1906, pictured in the navigation button that brought you to this page), notice that there is a ticket window between the agent’s office and the women’s waiting room to the west as well as a one in the men’s waiting room.

“That’s the ticket!” The phrase finds its origin in a mispronunciation of the French word estiquette (say it: “That’s etiquette!”), which translated properly as “a little piece of paper, label, or title affixed to a bag or bundle and expressing its contents.” Today, etiquette refers to the proper way things are done in polite society, derived from the practice of the French to write rules of correct behavior at court on small slips of paper or cards. When Pa and Mr. Clancy use the expression, they mean that what’s been suggested (i.e. when Ma suggests that the Boasts come for “Christmas” dinner after the Hard Winter, and when Pa suggests that the literaries shouldn’t be subject to too many rules) is exactly right and proper and will be exactly what is done.


ticket (FB 12, 28), see also conductor
     “That’s the ticket!” (TLW 32; LTP 18) – originally a mispronunciation of the word “etiquette”
     train / railroad (BPC 40; SSL 3)
     ticket window (SSL 3)