Saturday, August 22, 2015

Off to the Fair - 1896 Historic American Seeds and Plant Catalogs from Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Off to the Fair - A State Fair 1896

Detail, 1896 H W Buckbee Seed & Plant Guide, Rockford, Illinois, From the collection of historic American Seed & Plant Catalogs from Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Off to the fair with Camille Pissarro 1830-1903

Camille Pissarro (French artist, 1830-1903) The Fair Goers

Off to the Fair - 19C America

 Currier and Ives print

There were fairs in the 18C British American colonies & the new republic long before Elkanah Watson, a New England farmer, earned the title, "Father of US agricultural fairs" by organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  In 1807, Watson held  sheep shearing demonstrations in conjunction with traditional market fairs. By the fall of 1811, Watson's sheep shearing had evolved into the Berkshire County Fair featuring a procession of "three or four thousand animals," a band, displays of local industries, & artisans. 

Watson also tried to entice women's attendance by offering premiums on domestic products & by holding an annual ball.  Watson created more than just an exhibit of animals, he offered a competition, with prize money for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine & sheep.  

 Currier and Ives print

Elkanah Watson worked diligently for many years helping communities organize their own agricultural societies & their local fairs. By 1819, most counties in New England had organized their own agricultural societies & the movement was spreading into the other states.  Most early 19C local American fairs were the place local agricultural society members discussed crops, livestock, & land use. Most of these annual events awarded premiums (prizes) for the best (not the biggest) specimens of crops & animals. Initially, the main purpose was to educate farmers.

Local fairs drew isolated farm families to towns, county seats, & state capitals to socialize with friends; learn about improved seed varieties & livestock breeds; & marvel at new equipment. Fairs were usually held in the early autumn, after crops had been gathered. During the 1820-30s, local agricultural exhibitions floundered as private donations fell short of the money required for premiums, fair grounds, judges, transportation, publicity, & entertainment. 

In the 1840s, manufacturers began using fairs to exhibit new plows, planters, & reapers, hoping to sell their new products & to promote more efficient cultivation & better crops.  Agricultural fairs promoted human progress, science, education, & the agrarian ideal, while serving as a capitalistic marketplace for new farm methods & equipment. 

Gradually, county fair associations developed, usually consisting of local businessmen who raised money for premiums; sited the event on land purchased or leased for the purpose; & advertised.  Contestants' entry fees & general gate admissions paid most of the expenses. Beginning in the 1840s, state legislatures across the country formed agricultural boards & allocated funds to agricultural societies, which in turn allowed for larger, more regular exhibitions. 

In 1841, the 1st state fair took place in Syracuse, New York. Sponsored by the New York Agricultural Society, the 3-day event attracted more than 15,000 people.  The 19C closed with almost every state & province having one or more agricultural fair or exhibition.  The core elements of those early agricultural society events are still at the heart of the American agricultural fair today. 

Merchants, who benefited from the influx of visitors, supported the fair with displays on the grounds & often closed for a time to allow employees to attend. Since 19C fairs were held in September & October, schools often closed briefly during the festivities. In the Mid-West, railroads often offered excursion rates to fairgoers & freight reductions to exhibitors for transporting produce & livestock to the fair. Local civic groups operated refreshment stands & occasionally prepared exhibits of their own. Townships & granges also sometimes prepared agricultural exhibits. The sewing & quilting groups at local churches might enter handiwork in the domestic displays. 

By the last half of the 19C, many fairs provided tracks for a one-half-mile harness racing, trotting, & pacing competitions. In harness racing, horses pull lightweight sulkies, a single seat cart with two wire wheels, & compete on a one-mile circular dirt track. The driver carries a light whip, for which use is restricted by frequency & severity. The horses are either trotters or pacers. Trotters move together their opposite front & hind legs. Pacers, the faster & more popular of the two, move together their front & hind legs on the same side.

Horse racing proved to be one of the most popular & controversial activities, especially women's horse racing. At the 1854 Iowa State Fair, prizes for women's horse racing included a gold watch, a premium of $165, or a scholarship to study at a nearby seminary for 3 terms. Yet critics decried the immorality of the sport & the immodesty of female riders. By the late 1860s, many fair boards & legislatures across the country limited, or even banned, women's equestrian events. 

During the Civil War, the military often used the fields of state fairgrounds to train soldiers, forcing agricultural societies to either relocate or cancel annual events. Following the Civil War, fairs enjoyed a renewed popularity, as many states increased funding to construct permanent fairgrounds, complete with buildings & a midway. After 1870, political speeches, carnival games & vaudevillian performances became part of the fair-going experience. Bicycle races, balloon ascensions, & eventually automobile races & airplane demonstrations became common features.

1895 Detroit, Mich.  Calvert Litho. Co

Over the course of the 19C, fairs incorporated a wide range of educational, recreational, competitive, & social activities into their programs.  The typical 20C fair usually combined both educational & entertainment options. Educational offerings included the traditional livestock & crop exhibits & competitions; arts, crafts, & homemaking competitions; & youth & vocational activities. General entertainment included midways, rides, food, shows, & special events, much like today.

Off to the Fair - 1827 New England fair +discrimination against women

Across the United States, it is fair time, an old tradition. 

John Archibald Woodside, Sr (American painter, 1781-1852) A Pennsylvania Country Fair 1824. This painting is of a similar fair in Pennsylvania showing no women in attendance.

A traveler through the United States in 1827, noted that:

"On the 17th of October, I the village of Brighton, within a mile or two of Boston, where the great annual cattle show of the State of Massachusetts is held. This Fair, as it may be called, was established some years ago by the people of Boston, while the farmers of the State, from far and near, sent their cattle, fruit, home manufactures, newly invented agricultural implements, and any thing else they wished to show off, to this grand exhibition.

"In process of a very short time, however, the country folks became jealous of Brighton; and each county or town got up its own little independent cattle show,—like colonies deserting the parent firm, and setting up shop for themselves! But there was still enough left of the original Show to interest a stranger. Besides a ploughing match with 20 teams of oxen, there were various trials of strength, hy cattle drawing loaded carts up a steep hill.


"The numerous pens where the bullocks and sheep were enclosed, afforded also a high treat, from the variety of the breeds, and the high condition, of the animals exposed. And lastly, we were shown the rooms in which the specimens of domestic manufactures were displayed: most of these goods, which appeared excellent in quality, gave indication of native industry, well worthy of encouragement.

"In spite of all these objects of interest, I felt ill at ease, and though the expression be a strong one, it is not too strong, when I say that I was struck to the heart, with what seemed to me the cruel spectacle of such a numerous assemblage of people, on such a fine sunny day, in as pretty a little valley as ever was seen, close to a romantic village, and within four miles of a great and populous city like Boston, and yet amidst all this crowd there were no women!

"Literally and truly, amongst several thousand persons, I counted, during the whole day, only nine females ! I wandered round and round the grassy knolls, in search of some signs of life and merriment,—some of those joyous bursts of mirth which I had been wont to hear in other lands on similar occasions.

"But my eye could discover nothing to rest upon but groups of idle men, smoking segars, and gaping about, with their hands in their pockets, or looking listlessly at the penned up cattle, or following one another in quiet, orderly crowds, up the hill, after the loaded carts I spoke of, glad, apparently, of the smallest excitement to carry them out of themselves.

"But not a woman was to be seen. Neither were there any groups of lads and lasses romping on the grass;—no parties of noisy youths playing at football for the amusement of the village maidens ;—no scampering and screaming of the children amongst the trees ; for, alas ! the little things appeared nearly as solemn and soberly disposed as their elders.

"But in all the numerous booths placed over the ground, parties were hard at work with the whisky or gin bottle. In some, companies of ten or a dozen people might be seen working away at hot joints and meat pies—all very ordinary sights, I grant, at a fair in any country; but the peculiarity which struck me was the absence of talking, or laughing, or any hilarity of look or gesture.

"I never beheld any thing in my whole life, though I have been at many funerals, nearly so ponderous or so melancholy as this gloomy, lumbering, weary sort of merry-making. I felt my spirits crushed down, and as it were humiliated, when, suddenly, the sound of a fiddle struck my ear, literally the very first notes of music I had heard, out of a drawing-room, in the whole country. Of course I ran instantly to the spot, and what was there ?—four men dancing a reel!

"I spoke to several gentlemen on the field about this strange, and to European eyes, most unwonted separation of the sexes. But I got little else than ridicule for my "pains. Some of my friends smiled, some laughed, and one gentleman in reply to my expressions of surprise that females should be excluded from a scene every way innocent and suitable to them, exclaimed, " Ah, sir, this question of yours only adds another example of the impossibility of making any stranger understand our manners."

"This may or may not be true; but a stranger has eyes and can see; and long before this holiday, I had been struck in every part of the country through which I had passed, with this strong line of demarcation between the sexes. At Stockbridge, it is true, a considerable number of women were present at the oration; but they were carefully placed on one side of the church, and during the whole day there was no more intercourse between them and the men, than if they had belonged to different races.

"At this cattle show at Brighton, however, the exclusion was still more complete, for not even one female entered the church, though an agricultural discourse was there delivered, which the most delicate-minded person on earth might have listened to with pleasure and advantage.

"These, and a great number of other circumstances—some minute, some important, but all tending the same way, and varied in every possible shape, and conspicuous in all parts of the country—naturally claimed my attention irresistibly as something very unusual, and well deserving of a stranger's notice. I lost no fair opportunity, therefore, of conversing with intelligent persons on the subject, being naturally anxious to reach some explanation of so remarkable a distinction between America and any other Christian country I was acquainted with.

"The result of all my observations and enquiries is, that the women do not enjoy that station in society which has been allotted to them elsewhere; and consequently much of that important and habitual influence which, from the peculiarity of their nature, they alone can exercise over society in more fortunately arranged communities, seems to be lost.

"In touching upon so delicate a subject, it is right to state at once, and in the most explicit terms, that I never had, for one instant, the least reason to suppose that there was any wish on the part of the men to depress the other sex, or indeed any distinct knowledge of the fact.

"On the contrary, I conscientiously believe that there exists universally among the men a sincere and strong desire, not only to raise women up, but to maintain them on the fairest level with themselves. But I conceive that the political and moral circumstances now in full action in America, are too strong to be counterbalanced even by these laudable endeavours."

Source: Basil Hall. Travels in North America, in the years 1827 and 1828, Volume 2.

Off the the Fair - 1500s European Village Fairs

From the school of Pieter Bruegel the elder (Flemish artist, 1525–1569) A Village Fair

1500s Brueghel, Pieter, the younger (Flemish artist, c.1564-1637-8)A Village Fair (Village festival in Honour of Saint Hubert and Saint Anthony)

1500s Brueghel, Pieter, the younger (Flemish artist, c.1564-1637-8) Village Fair Festival.  This painting is much like the above except for the addition of a few celebrants in the lower left.

A fair is an ancient tradition. Early Roman fairs were holidays during which the people did not work. In the Middle Ages, many fairs developed as temporary commercial markets, especially important for long-distance trade, where traders could buy & sell. These often were tied to a Christian religious occasion particularly the anniversary dedication of a local church or the feast day of the patron saint to whom the local church was dedicated. Some fairs were seasonal festivals, such as harvest celebrations. To these often religious-based commercial marketplaces townsfolk added processions, entertainment, and food & drink, as these early markets took on the aspect of modern-day fairs. Many communities have long had dedicated fairgrounds; others hold fairs in a variety of public places, including streets & town squares, and large gardens.

Isaac Claesz van Swanenburg (Dutch artist, 1537-1624) A Flemish Fair 

1590 Gillis Mostaert (1528–1598) Village Fair

1500s Hans Bol (Dutch artist, 1534-1593) Village Feast, Annual Fair

Gillis Mostaert (1528–1598) Feast of St George