Sanitary Fairs

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Sanitary Fairs

Despite their somewhat clinical-sounding name, sanitary fairs were lavish, well-attended charity events held in several major Northern cities with the goal of raising funds for the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC). This quasi-government organization, run mostly by volunteers, inspected Union Army camps and hospitals to ensure they were adhering to proper hygienic standards, and at the local level collected food, blankets, and medical supplies for soldiers fighting the Confederacy. These sanitary fairs, held between 1863 and 1865, were organized and run by the regional auxiliaries of the USSC and took place in Chicago, Boston, New York, and St. Louis. Altogether, the events collected an estimated $2.7 million for the USSC. This figure was nearly half of the USSC's total revenues during its five years in operation, and its equivalent amount in twenty-first-century dollars is $30 million (McCarthy 2003, p. 196).

There were some seven thousand local auxiliaries established after the start of the American Civil War in April 1861, and their active participants were among the most affluent and prominent women in each community (McCarthy 2003, p. 194). The sanitary fairs held in the larger Northern cities were well-attended and immensely successful charity events that became the focal point of an otherwise somber social season during the war years. There was an attempt, however, to make the goals of the USSC, and the sanitary fairs themselves, of interest to all who supported the Union cause. A press release issued to the clergy urged them to enjoin their congregations to participate. They were asked to issue a plea from their pulpits, calling on "every loyal and patriotic workingman, mechanic or farmer, who can make a pair of shoes or raise a barrel of apples…. to contribute something that can be turned into money, and again from money into the means of ensuring the health and life of our national soldiers" (McCarthy 2003, p. 196).

Opposition to the USSC

The USSC's founding members modeled their organization in part on the British Sanitary Commission, which operated during the Crimean War of 1853-1856 and made immense strides in reducing disease outbreaks among British troops. Nonetheless, many politicians in Washington, along with top military brass, feared the meddling of self-appointed experts and opposed the USSC's offer to help the war effort; even President Abraham Lincoln warned that the Commission could become the proverbial "fifth wheel to the coach" (Miller 1911, p. 330). However, the surgeon general, Thomas Lawson, and War Secretary Simon Cameron both urged Lincoln to sign a June 18, 1861, proposal calling for the establishment of the USSC as an official government entity. The two men were part of a small contingent who believed it was wise to placate the growing number of Northern women who were eager to contribute to the war effort in a useful way.

Goals and Operations

The USSC operated on several levels. It trained volunteer nurses for field hospitals, and sent representatives to inspect army camps, field hospitals, and hospital ships to determine whether or not they maintained proper sanitary conditions. The volunteers also instructed camp kitchen personnel on food-safety issues and operated a post office service that located missing soldiers on behalf of their families. At the local level, sewing and knitting circles were organized to make uniforms, socks, gloves, and blankets for soldiers, and depots were established in cities and towns that accepted donations of both goods and money. The items collected by the USSC at these depots were either donated directly to soldiers or used for the sanitary fairs.

The goal of the sanitary fairs was to supply Union military personnel some of the basic necessities above and beyond what an already-overextended War Department could provide. One of their most significant contributions was the "comfort bag," assembled by USSC volunteers and distributed in the thousands to Union soldiers. These contained needles and thread, so that soldiers could repair their own uniforms, a miniature Bible, and a small knife for woodcarving—a popular hobby at the time—along with a comb, packets of coffee and sugar, and other incidentals that were gratefully received. "If the comfort bag contained no letter, with a stamped envelope, and blank sheet of paper added, its recipient was a little crest-llen," wrote Mary Livermore, head of the USSC Chicago auxiliary, in her 1888 memoir, My Story of the War. "The stationary was rarely forgotten. Folded in the sleeves of shirts, tucked in pockets, wrapped in handkerchiefs, and rolled in socks, were envelopes with stamps affixed, containing blank sheets of notepaper and usually a pencil was added. The soldiers expressed their need of stationary in almost every letter they wrote" (p. 140).

Fairs as Events

Livermore was a prominent journalist and women's rights activist who headed the USSC's Northwestern chapter in Chicago. She was instrumental in organizing the first sanitary fair, called the Northwestern Sanitary Fair, in October 1863. This event was notable for the $80,000 raised (in twenty-first century dollars, the equivalent of $1 million), part of which came from the sale of the original Emancipation Proclamation document (donated by President Lincoln), which fetched $3,000 at auction (Livermore 1888, p. 196). The document was destroyed just a few years later, however, during Chicago's notorious 1871 fire.

Other cities quickly copied Livermore's example. The Great Western Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati was held in December 1863, followed closely by a Boston event staged at the Boston Athenaeum that same month. The fairs' opening night galas quickly became eagerly anticipated social events, and wealthy families donated valuable items to be sold at auction. The Boston fair was notable for the sale of a painting by the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto, donated by Peter Chardon Brooks, the son of Boston's first millionaire.

Civic pride and a confluence of wealth and power resulted in the New York Metropolitan Sanitary Fair topping the record for fundraising when its April 1864 event collected a stunning $2 million for the USSC (Silber 2005, p. 186). The New York fair was held at the since-demolished Palace Garden on 14th Street at Union Square, and its opening-day festivities included a military parade through the city and an opening address delivered by General John Adams Dix, who had stepped down from his position as U.S. Treasury Secretary when the war began. Dix told the crowd, according to a front-page article in the New York Times, that "our enemies abroad have said that the South…[is] animated by the highest enthusiasm, and that we are comparatively cold and unmoved by the high motives of action. It is precisely the reverse; the contributions of the Northern people in treasure and blood have been voluntary offerings and sacrifices on the altar of their country" (April 5, 1864).

Among the Metropolitan Fair's most popular attractions was the Knickerbocker Kitchen, a temporary restaurant whose main novelty was the staff of socialites—from some of New York's oldest Dutch families, such as the Roosevelts—who waited on tables. The same New York Times front-page article also reported that three pickpockets were arrested on the first day of the Fair in the Palace Garden, and forced to parade through the crowd with a placard reading Pickpocket around their necks.

Baltimore, St. Louis, and Philadelphia all hosted sanitary fairs to raise money for Union soldiers and sailors over the course of 1864 and 1865. The final one, held in Chicago, opened on May 30, 1865, having already been planned by the time the war ended on April 9. Though the fairs were a quickly forgotten part of the war effort, for a generation of women who devoted their time and energy to them, they served as an invaluable introduction to the worlds of planning, organization, fundraising, financial administration, and outright commerce. The skills they learned would later be deployed in the burgeoning social reform and women's suffrage movements that gained steam in the decades following the war.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sanitary Commissioner and Conservationist

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was one of a group of men involved with the work of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) and its sanitary fairs. By the early twenty-first century, however, he was better known as a landscape architect—he designed Central Park in New York City as well as many other famous parks and college campuses—and as an early conservationist than as a Civil War journalist and sanitary commissioner.

Olmsted was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of a well-to-do merchant. As a boy, Olmsted loved to explore the woods near his home, but had to give up plans for college when his eyes were damaged by exposure to poison sumac. Olmsted turned to agriculture and journalism, acquiring a farm on Staten Island in 1849 and taking a research journey through the South between 1852 and 1857 to write articles for the New York Daily Times (now The New York Times). Olmsted's articles for the Times were eventually collected into a set of volumes titled Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom of America, first published in London in 1861. Olmsted's vivid first-person writing about the ills of slavery helped to shape public opinion in the North in the early months of the Civil War.

After returning from the South Olmsted turned his interest in gardening and landscape design to the development of Central Park in New York City. Olmsted envisioned the park as a space for enjoyment of nature that should be open to everyone. Although this concept of a "public" park seems obvious in the early 2000s, it was revolutionary in the late 1850s. Olmsted took a leave of absence from his work as director of Central Park to work for the USSC in 1861. In 1863, however, he was sent west to study the Mariposa mining estate in the Yosemite Valley and to manage it as a public park granted by Congress to the state of California. Two years later Olmsted drafted "Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865," in which he set forth his vision of the national park as a place for all persons, not just the wealthy and powerful. Olmsted's view of nature as a source of spiritual and mental well-being was the basis of his determination to make this treasure freely available to all citizens. His 1865 report, available from the Yosemite Online Library, stated:

It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men…that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness….

The enjoyment of the choicest natural scenes in the country and the means of recreation connected with them [have been] a monopoly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few very rich people. The great mass of society, including those to whom it would be of the greatest benefit, is excluded from it. In the nature of the case private parks can never be used by the mass of the people in any country nor by any considerable number even of the rich, except by the favor of a few….

It was in accordance with…the duty of a Republican Government that Congress enacted that the Yosemite should be held, guarded and managed for the free use of the whole body of the people forever, and that the care of it, and the hospitality of admitting strangers from all parts of the world to visit it and enjoy it freely, should be a duty of dignity.

rebecca j. frey


"The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920." The Library of Congress, May 3, 2002. Available from

Olmsted, Frederick Law. "Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865." Yosemite Online Library. Available from

Stevenson, Elizabeth. Park Maker: A Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000.

The recipients of the Sanitary Fair's efforts, the soldiers, were profoundly grateful to the USSC and the women who organized and staffed the fairs. Livermore, in her memoir, reprinted a letter from several wounded men who were recovering at a Memphis military hospital. The letter, addressed to "the Managers of the Northwestern Fair," asserted that its writers "are deeply grateful for the sympathy manifested towards us in words and deeds. We are cheered, comforted, and encouraged…. In the light of your smiles, and in this great earnest[ness] of your sympathy, we have an additional incentive never to relax our efforts for our native land, whose women are its brightest ornaments, as well as its truest patriots" (Livermore 1888, p. 460).


"Art People." New York Times, April 5, 1985.

Livermore, Mary. My Story of the War: A Woman's Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience as Field and Hospital Nurse in the Union Army. Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington, 1888.

"Luxury against Patriotism." New York Times, April 2, 1864, p. 6.

McCarthy, Kathleen D. American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700–1865. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

"Metropolitan Fair; The Grand Opening Yesterday." New York Times, April 5, 1864, p. 1.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, and Robert Sampson Lanier, eds. Prisons and Hospitals. Vol. 7 of The Photographic History of the Civil War. New York: Review of Reviews, 1911.

Silber, Nina. Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Vogel, Carol. "An Old Master Sold at Auction Raises Doubts." New York Times, February 17, 2000.

Carol Brennan