A reflection of American life and its diverse people and interests, state fairs featuring exhibits, rides, shows, and food have been popular since the mid-nineteenth century and became an American tradition in the twentieth. The pride, nostalgia, and entertainment that make up a state fair experience have transcended political, social, and economic changes that America has faced during the twentieth century. By the 1990s state fairs have come to represent a nostalgic, "old-fashioned" form of family entertainment that emphasizes state and national pride, agricultural roots, and good times.
Fairs have existed for centuries and can even be dated back to ancient Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. Modern American fairs grew out of an 1807 idea by Elkanah Watson, a banker and farmer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He decided that the best way to convince other farmers to raise sheep was to show them his own animals. The townspeople were so impressed with Watson's idea that they gathered together to form the first Berkshire Cattle Show in 1810. Although many people were concerned about attending a nonreligious celebration, Watson convinced the people of New England that the show was an acceptable event for upstanding citizens because of its importance to the business of farming and its educational value. Throughout the next decade the show expanded to include men's and women's manufacturing exhibits, a parade, and a dance. The fair quickly spread throughout the United States, and by the time of the Civil War, agricultural societies in 25 states were holding annual fairs.
With the success of county and local agricultural fairs, state governments quickly realized that fairs could be used to highlight the growth and achievements of their states. New York held the first state fair in September 1841, and several states in the Midwest quickly followed its example. State fairs were among the first places in the nation where people could see electric lights, automobiles, solar homes, and dozens of other modern inventions. Railroads contributed to the popularity of state fairs by allowing people to travel quickly and cheaply. Some railroads even provided discounts for exhibitors and families going to the fair. People attended the early state fairs in overwhelming numbers and still do: more than 900,000 people attended the 1997 Ohio State Fair, the second largest state fair next to Texas.
State fairs attempt to feature the most appealing aspects of their respective state. Each year people who have made a difference, such as sports heroes, celebrities, teachers, and activists are chosen to be recognized at the state fair. In cooperation with the state wildlife bureau, many state fairs offer an area showcasing native birds and animals. Prominent businesses, churches, and social organizations highlight their own achievements. Each organization is given a booth in which it can introduce people to its work. Visitors shopping for certain items are offered a large selection, while those who are just browsing are introduced to many new and exciting people and goods that they may not have known existed. Agriculture continues to be a vital component of state fairs in the twentieth century. Exhibits of farm machinery and tools are common. Competitions for crops and farm animals remain much the same as in the nineteenth century, except that advances in technology have allowed for stronger and healthier crops and livestock.
Young people are an important part of the state fair experience. Their presence allows older people to recall their own experiences at fairs past, and their participation helps to forge a new bond between the young and the old that often does not exist the rest of the year. High school marching bands come from around the state to play at the fair. Youth groups such as the 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and Girl and Boy Scouts hold competitions for raising animals, cooking, sewing, woodworking, citizenship, art, and gardening. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s many young people who participated in state fairs were far removed from the rural farm setting of the traditional fairgoers. Encouraged by their parents' fond memories, young people living in urban areas often will concentrate on home manufacturing areas or raise small animals.
Mechanical rides became common at state fairs in the years following their introduction at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago. The Ferris wheel, first introduced there, became a hit at state fairs around the nation and remained popular throughout the twentieth century. In the 1990s, a state fair would not be complete without a diverse and abundant selection of rides for people of all ages. The Bumper Cars, the Himalaya, and the Scrambler are just a few of the rides that have kept Americans returning to the state fair since the 1950s. State fair rides are popular with teenagers and have been romanticized as the starting place for many first dates.
Sideshows featuring multiheaded people or animals, bearded women, and extra-human contortionists are expected at state fairs and were once part of the novelty of discovery that made up the fair. Since the 1970s, however, sideshows have declined in popularity and presence at state fairs, either because of an effort to provide "whole-some" entertainment for families or simply due to lack of interest. Nonetheless, sideshows remain part of the nostalgic image of state fairs.
Food is an essential part of the state fair experience. French fries, coney dogs, Polish sausage, cotton candy, and apple pie fill the air with a smell that only a state fair can create. State fairs often offer specialty foods that are made of locally grown ingredients, but many foods highlight the ethnic diversity of the state. It is common for a single state fair to have food from dozens of countries around the world—Mexican, Greek, Chinese, Polish, and German are especially popular—creating a common ground where ethnic and racial tensions present in everyday life may be muted.
Since the 1950s, state fairs have offered shows featuring popular musical groups of many different styles—rock, Christian, blues, folk, gospel, and even some classical. Country music is usually the most popular, however. In the 1980s and 1990s, country musicians Alabama, Willie Nelson, and Garth Brooks sold out shows at state fairs around the country. While big names such as these do attract crowds, other sorts of shows such as rodeos, exhibition sporting events, and magic shows are also popular and can sometimes attract crowds as large as those for concerts.
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