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Subscriber: null; date: 21 October 2019

Sanitary fairs in Americalocked

  • Ethan Robey

Fund-raising events organized by Sanitary Commissions in various cities from 1863 to 1865 in aid of the Union army. The fairs included some of the most influential public displays of the fine arts in America up to that point and were an impetus for the establishment of major art museums in American cities. The US Sanitary Commission, formed in early 1861 at the urging of private citizens, purchased supplies for Union soldiers, worked to improve military hospitals and coordinated the activities of the many local aid agencies involved in similar work.

The fairs grew out of the efforts, mostly of women, working at the Commission’s local branches. The Northwest Branch of the Sanitary Commission was the first to host a fair, organizing a public exhibition in Chicago in the fall of 1863. Such exhibitions soon became a chief source of fund-raising for the Commission. Sanitary fairs were eclectic displays, including exhibits of commercial goods, fine arts, machinery and domestic crafts. The form was similar to the displays of goods at Mechanics’ Institute fairs, yet, unlike those events, where education through object lessons was paramount, sanitary fairs, as primarily fund-raising enterprises, tended more toward spectacle, with an emphasis on patriotic themes. Lavish floral displays were common, as were exhibits of war trophies and relics and contests to award ornate mementos to favored Union generals and admirals. Admission fees were relatively high, around $2 in some cities, at a time when other shows or spectacles were often 25¢ or less.

Inspired by the financial success of the Chicago Sanitary Fair, Sanitary Commissions in other cities soon organized their own: Boston in late 1863; Cincinnati in the winter of 1863–4; Brooklyn in early 1864; Philadelphia in June 1864—about two dozen fairs were held in all.

Nostalgia in the midst of war prompted the creation of attractions such as the “New England Kitchen” at the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair and similar “kitchens” at later fairs. These colonial-era-themed restaurants, complete with costumed staffs, helped reify American origin myths and played a role in the development of the period room.

The most profitable and influential fair was the New York Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, held in April 1864, which raised over $1 million. Its long, narrow art gallery became the largest public display of contemporary and older American and European paintings assembled up to that time, with about 600 paintings on view. Most of the artwork was lent by private collectors or donated by the artists, thus allowing for a display more retrospective than an annual National Academy salon and less dominated by amateur work than a Mechanics’ Institute fair. The gallery held significant paintings by Thomas Cole, John F(rederick) Kensett, Asher B(rown) Durand, Jasper F(rancis) Cropsey, William Sidney Mount, Eastman Johnson and others, as well as work by contemporary European favorites such as (Jean-Louis-)Ernest Meissonier (1815–91), Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–73) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). On the far wall hung Emanuel Leutze ’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), and dominating the side walls were Frederic Edwin Church ’s Heart of the Andes (1859) in its elaborate frame surmounted by portraits of Washington, Adams and Jefferson and, opposite it, Albert Bierstadt ’s Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak (1863). Church’s celebrated Niagara (1857) was also featured in the art gallery, and Bierstadt, in another part of the exhibition, presented a spectacle of dances and folkways performed by a troupe of Onondaga and Cayuga Indians.

Enthusiastic public reception to the art gallery gave new force to long-standing calls to create a national gallery of American art. After the end of the war, several of the same artists, collectors and prominent citizens who had been involved in the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair were among the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the painters Eastman Johnson and Daniel Huntington (then president of the National Academy of Design), the architect Hunt family §(2) , the lawyer Joseph Choate (1832–1917) and the businessman William T. Blodgett. Many of the collectors who lent works to the Sanitary Fair would later donate those same paintings to the new Metropolitan Museum, including railroad executive John Taylor Johnston (1820–93), who would become its first president.

The Sanitary fairs’ art galleries were thus an early manifestation of the control over public taste-defining institutions by a newly coherent national upper class and led directly to the wave of art museum founding in the decade following the end of the Civil War.


  • W. Y. Thompson: “Sanitary Fairs of the Civil War,” Civil War History, 4 (March 1958), pp. 51–67
  • G. Hendricks: “Bierstadt and Church at the New York Sanitary Fair,” Mag. Ant., 102 (Nov 1972), pp. 892–8
  • B. Gordon: Bazaars and Fair Ladies: The History of the American Fundraising Fair (Knoxville, 1998)
  • E. Milroy: “Avenue of Dreams: Patriotism and the Spectator at Philadelphia’s Great Central Sanitary Fair,” Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War, ed. W. A. Blair and W. Pencak (University Park, PA, 2001)
  • E. Savidou-Terrono: For “The Boys in Blue”: The Art Galleries of the Sanitary Fairs (PhD thesis, New York, City U., 2002)