Throughout March, Object of the Week celebrates Women’s History Month. Each Monday a new post highlights women designers in the collection.
Author: Adrienne Meyer
This lithograph is one of four in the Cooper Hewitt Design Library depicting scenes from the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair of 1864. These images capture some of the spectacle and attractions of the event.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union government lacked both the money and the manpower to support a national army. Union war mobilization depended almost entirely on the civilian population to offer their time, efforts and their private resources to the cause. In July 1861, Congress established the U. S. Sanitary Commission, a war relief organization dedicated to providing “sanitary” services for the soldiers; setting up hospitals, hiring nurses, and raising money for uniforms, food and medical supplies. Although headed by men, most of the Commission’s work was accomplished by thousands of women volunteers. To aid sick and wounded soldiers and inspire loyalty to the Union cause on the home front, it was the visionary women of the Sanitary Commission who created the great patriotic fund-raising events known as Sanitary Fairs.
Planned by local women’s groups the fairs, which were held in nearly every major city in the North during the War, were independently organized and run entirely by women.
Local women’s organizations orchestrated the hugely successful 1864 Sanitary Fair hosted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Displays of curiosities, relics, weaponry, and natural specimens, along with elaborate exhibitions of horticultural, artistic, commercial and industrial advancements provided visitors with examples of the nation’s success and history. The desperate plight of soldiers was never far from mind, but the mood of the fairs was light, festive and a social occasion in an otherwise war weary world. Dances, parades, raffles, and merchandise sales and auctions, animated visitors, giving them the opportunity to contribute to the war effort.
A smashing success both as a fund raiser and patriotic spectacle, the event raised a remarkable $400,000, four times more than anticipated. It was the highest sum ever made at a Sanitary Fair up to that time.
This image, plate 2, shows the Brooklyn Academy of Music viewed from the Dress Circle, or second-story balcony. The great hall is festooned in red white and blue bunting, streamers, and American flags. A white field tent with two occupied beds rests next to a flag and figures wearing Union blue uniforms. In the center of the hall, rows and rows of draped tables displayed merchandise for sale. All of the goods for sale were donated, as men, women and children from all levels of society pledged their political allegiance by contributing items to the cause. Offerings ranged from family heirlooms to jewelry, books, quilts, fancy goods, dry goods, to dolls and bookmarks made by schoolchildren.
The fair’s most popular attraction was The New England Kitchen, a restaurant and exhibition area designed to offer a quaint scene of colonial life before the American Revolution. Here “dames” dressed in period costume invited fair-goers to enter the world of their forebears, complete with spinning wheels, antique furniture, and a large open fireplace with swinging pots.
Diners sat down at long communal tables using “old fashioned china” and two-tined forks to eat the plain fare of earlier times—from pork and beans to doughnuts and apple cider—served by attendants in colonial dress. Diners ate “family style” sitting next to strangers from different walks of life to share a meal and experience a shared sense of national belonging.
Staged entertainments, such as an “olden time” concert, a quilting party, an apple bee, a visit to the parson, and a mock wedding heightened the sense of theatricality and made the audience an essential element of the performance.
The Sanitary Fairs were incredibly successful, raising more than twenty-five million dollars to help the Union finance the war. But their impact ran much deeper. These highly visual extravaganzas engendered national patriotism among their participants and their visitors. That the fairs created a Union-wide display of emblems, objects, and ideas that helped shape American national identity testifies to the originality, insight, and dedication of the thousands of largely unsung female volunteers who organized and staffed them.
Adrienne Meyer was an executive in the fashion industry for twenty years, before entering the Parsons Graduate Program, graduating in 2016. She has contributed important research to special projects at The New York Historical Society and Cooper Hewitt , Smithsonian Design Museum and the Design Library. She recently completed a Library internship researching furniture trade catalogs.