Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sanitary Fairs

Without much notice, I was drafted into participating in a sanitary fair next month.

Sanitary fairs can be a challenge to reenact, simply because of the scale. It's a bit like trying to reenact a world's fair. Many were huge (more than two miles long) and had buildings specially constructed for the purpose. It's simply not practical to reenact one of the larger fairs. Still, smaller towns held fairs and there were even children's bazaars.

If you plan on recreating a specific fair, good luck to you. Get started on your research now, and in six or seven years, you may be ready. Another option is to research sanitary fairs in general and pull your scenarios from several different fairs. To get an idea of a typical sanitary fair think of a combination of a church bazaar, a silent-auction fundraiser with goods from local businesses, a raffle, a cafeteria, a kitchy museum, and a world's fair. The whole place would be covered with bunting and flags. Each booth would be decorated with more bunting and swags of greenery or flowers.

Short of knitting until my arms fall off, I've had to find some other options to recreate. Specific references will have to come later, but at the moment I've been reading:

  • Jasper Cross, "Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair," Missouri Historical Review 46 (1952): 237-46.
  • William Y. Thompson, "Sanitary Fairs of the Civil War," Civil War History 4.1 (1956): 51-67.*

One of the first things you will have to figure out is how to deal with money issues. Sanitary fairs were wholly charitable, although they did have some paid staff. Today, getting reenactors and businesses to donate goods can be difficult, especially if you are trying to convey the sheer volume of goods present at a typical fair. Some portion of the fair should include money raised for preservation, but you may want to let reenactors either sell their items outright or pretend to sell them.

For example, women of the south held bazaars to raise money for gunboats and raffled off what became known as gunboat quilts. Typically done in brodierie perse, like this image, this kind of quilt could easily take hundreds of hours to reproduce. Letting go of it, even for historic preservation, would be difficult, and the money raised would likely be far less than the actual value of the quilt.

Following are some options and roles for your reenactors that would add to a more authentic fair-going experience:

  • Hold an opening parade with military divisions, farmers with produce wagons, carts of children singing, etc.
  • Have two people stationed at the entrance to charge admission and/or collect tickets. There were season passes, but daily ticket prices were along the lines of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
  • Hand out or sell copies of the daily newspaper. Many fairs published their own papers, sort of like a literary magazine with news of the fair, prize results, poems, advertisements, and patriotic sentiments.
  • Reproduce some patriotic CDVs and have children sell them to earn a certificate.
  • Set up an art gallery. There are frame shops that specialize in Civil War artwork and they might be willing to set up a display.
  • Hold raffles for actual or pretend items. Items raffled at fairs included farmland, horses, pianos, a billiard table, a buggy, framed pictures, rifles, a ship's model, silver bars, and unsold merchandise. Raffles were actually controversial, as some considered them a form of gambling. Some reenactors could pretend to object to the raffle.
  • Hold an auction for letters and documents by "well-known personalities." These could be copied long-hand from printed texts.
  • Cast ballots (at $1 each) for favorite general. A variant would be to cast ballots for the reenactors, as in best overall display, most patriotic display, etc.
  • Set up donation boxes to collect money for the Freedman's Aid Society, Refugee Aid Society, Soldiers' Home, Soldiers' Orphans Home, etc.
  • Have a lecture, concert, performance, ball, or tableau. All were a part of many fairs.
  • Have a visit and speech by a historic personage. President Lincoln spoke at the Philadelphia and Baltimore fairs.
  • Display some curiosities and relics like taxidermy or captured flags.
  • Arrest a female pickpocket, put a placard around her neck proclaiming her as such, and parade her through the fair.
  • Sell refreshments. Many fairs had historically-themed restaurants were local women dressed in "colonial" dress to serve old-timey New England meals.
  • Present a flag to the president of the fair for all his efforts.

The variety of handicrafts and goods sold was enormous and included silverware, glassware, all kinds of groceries and merchandise from local stores and businesses. Farmers donated produce and local women busied themselves making fancy goods like pen wipers, bookmarks, knitted items, cushions, linens and the like. Foreign countries donated goods like coal, artwork, and cases of champagne. One fair included items like fans and rings carved by Confederate prisoners of war in exchange for tobacco. It might be possible to find some carved items and market them as such. At the end of the fair, pretend to box up the left over items to be shipped off to the next fair.

There's lots more to be said on sanitary fairs, with room for much more research particularly in primary sources, but that's half the fun.


* You'll have to trust me that I've read more recent articles. These are just the two I happen to have with me today and they have fairly detailed accounts.

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