Sanitary fairs in America
- 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....